Sometime between Monday evening and Tuesday morning, one or more unidentified individuals placed numerous anti-school levy signs in uptown Athens and nearby student neighborhoods, apparently without seeking permission from owners of properties where some of the signs were placed.
Similarly, stickers bearing the same anti-levy message were stuck onto city-owned cigarette butt receptacles in the uptown area, without permission and apparently illegally.
Numerous yard signs with a “Vote No on 3” logo (a capital N and an ‘O’ with a diagonal line through it over the number 3, followed by the message “There Are Smarter Ways”) were planted in yards along Mill Street, College Street, Congress Street, West State Street and other areas in and around uptown Athens.
A number of the same signs were placed in the “devil strip” between South College Street and the sidewalk in front of sororities and fraternities in the block between East Washington and East Union streets. That’s city right-of-way where placing signs is not permitted.
The signs refer to Issue 3 on the General Election ballot on Nov. 6. Voters residing in the Athens City School District will be asked to decide whether or not to approve a proposed 5.88-mill property tax levy to construct new school facilities and significantly expand and renovate others.
The signs in question bear the same logo and note at the bottom that showed up on anonymously posted website and social-media posts over the past two weeks. They say the signs and web postings were paid for by Heartland America, Inc., and were not authorized by any ballot issue committee. The only Ohio corporation registered under that name with the Ohio Secretary of State is a scented-candle company based in Canton, Ohio that’s no longer in business (the state canceled its registration in 2009, according to records).
Because of the arguments used in the web and social-media posts, and the fact that students have been targeted to a large extent, it’s been widely assumed that the “No on 3” campaign is the work of local landlords who rent to students. However, The NEWS has been unable to confirm that’s the case.
The “No on Issue 3” campaign is apparently not affiliated with other local groups opposing the school levy.
Laura Alloway, who ran unsuccessfully for the Athens City School Board last year, is a member of a new group that just formed against the levy, Athens Area Citizens for Common-Sense Solutions. She said the group, which supports retaining smaller schools, registered through the Athens County Board of Elections and started distributing signs this week.
As for the “No on Issue 3” campaign that’s been putting up unauthorized signs and stickers in various locations, she said, “I can tell you that I am actively trying to spread the word about why this levy is a bad plan for our community, and I am supportive of anything that accomplishes that effort, including signage.”
THE FACILITIES MASTER PLAN, approved by the School Board in late March, calls for the construction of two new pre-kindergarten to third-grade school buildings on the current sites of East and Morrison-Gordon elementary schools; a new high school for grades nine to 12 on the site of the current Athens High School building; a complete renovation of The Plains Elementary School, which will house grades four through six, that will include the current building and a significant addition; and renovation of the Athens Middle School, which will house seventh and eighth grades.
The district has not yet decided what to do with the West Elementary School building, though the building will not be used as a school, Supt. Tom Gibbs has stated.
If approved on Nov. 6, the proposed 30-year levy will cover the local share of the estimated $86.1 million facilities master plan – which is $52 million – plus an additional $8.5 million to cover locally funded initiatives, or projects that the School Board deems necessary for the district that are outside the scope of what the state would fund. The state of Ohio will pick up the rest of the cost.
The total bond amount to be funded by the tax levy is $60.5 million, and the average homeowner with a property valued at $100,000 would pay roughly $200 more per year, which is around a 21 percent increase in the school property tax paid in the Athens City School District.
More than any Athens school levy in recent memory, Issue 3 has generated forceful arguments for and against, with even some traditionally pro-education advocates coming out against it.
Notwithstanding the strong feelings about the bond issue, the residents of houses where the signs were place, in many cases, had nothing to do with placing them, and in some instances, aren’t even familiar with Issue 3.
The Athens NEWS interviewed several residents on streets where the signs had been placed to see if anyone had been contacted about the “Vote No on 3” signs.
Ren Chernich, an OU student and West State Street resident, said Tuesday afternoon that she wasn’t sure who was responsible for the signs but believed they were placed early Tuesday morning, as she could not recall seeing them the day before.
“It’s just weird that they’re putting it like right in our yard when I don’t even know what (Issue 3) is,” Chernich said, adding that she had not been contacted by her landlord or anyone else regarding the signs.
Several students who are residents of Congress Street and Mill Street also confirmed that the signs showed up suddenly Tuesday morning without prior warning, and all of the students who spoke with The NEWS professed ignorance about any details of Issue 3.
Lisa Dynia, a student and resident of North Congress Street, said she and her housemates removed the sign that was in their yard because they didn’t know where it had come from and feared receiving a fine. A few others also admitted to removing the signs from their yards, and many of the signs that had been in place Monday evening and Tuesday morning were gone by Tuesday afternoon. A number of the signs on Mill Street by around 8 a.m. Tuesday had been flattened in the grass where they’d been posted.
Dynia said that she saw someone who looked like a fellow student planting the signs up and down Congress Steet on Monday evening, but added, “I could be wrong.”
Sandy Slenker, an Ohio University student and resident of West State Street, said Tuesday that she didn’t know anything about the signs, either, and that she had not been contacted by anyone, including her landlord, about the signs in advance.
In a brief interview Tuesday, Slenker’s landlord Michael Kleinman, co-owner of Kleinpenny Rentals, said his company did not place the signs on his properties. “I have not permitted anyone to do it, and I don’t know who’s putting them out there,” he said.
It’s important to note that landlords have the legal right to post legal signs on their rental properties and don’t have to request permission from tenants. Yet, as stated, it appears that many were placed without obtaining property owner/landlord permission.
The Rev. Rob Martin of the First Presbyterian Church of Athens, said he noticed that signs had been posted on the Athletes in Action property, next door to the church’s office building on College Street, and in the strip between sidewalk and street in front of several sorority and fraternity houses along College Street.
He said he suspects they had been placed without permission.
When asked, Brenda Davis of Athletes in Action said she noticed at least one of the signs on the AIA property on Tuesday but didn’t know where they had come from. She wondered, too, whether the person responsible had gotten permission to place the sign on AIA property, and she hadn’t been informed about them in advance.
Reactions to the “No on Issue 3” signs have been mixed.
Kleinman said he was upset when he learned of the signs on Kleinpenny Rentals property, because he had not given permission and the signs don’t reflect the opinions of his business.
“We’re for the levy,” Kleinman said, “and we removed the signs.”
ATHENS MAYOR STEVE PATTERSON said Tuesday that he, too, was upset to learn that signs had been placed on city right-of-way or property, and that it’s not legal to place any type of sign on private or public property without permission from the property owner.
“You can’t put up signs in the public right-of-way. They have to be in your yard,” Patterson said, referring to the property owner.
Of signs that were spotted in the grassy area between the sidewalk and the street in front of the College Street sorority and fraternity houses, Patterson confirmed “that was improper” as well.
“Nobody came to me… Nobody approached the city to put ‘No on Issue 3’ stickers on city property,” Patterson said, referring to the public cigarette butt receptacles that are located on Court Street. Each receptacle, located on light poles, features artwork by Passion Works Studio in Athens, and in some casees the “No on Issue 3” stickers were pasted over the art.
The city’s Office of Code Enforcement was asked to remove the signs in the public right-of-way, Patterson said. The Code office was also asked to remove some of the signs on private property, according to Code Enforcement Director Rick Sirois.
Sirois said Tuesday that his office had collected between 10 and 15 signs, some from the public right-of-way, some from private property where the property owners said they did not authorize/approve the signs, and others from sorority and fraternity properties.
The signs will be stored in the Code Office, Patterson said, and the office will attempt to notify the person or people responsible for them to retrieve them.
Though many of the signs were not legally posted, there’s apparently nothing illegal about the lack of transparency behind them, according to Athens County Board of Elections Director Debbie Quivey. Though the signs and stickers state that they’re funded by Heartland America Inc., the true identity of those responsible remains unclear. However, Quivey said that doesn’t matter.
Since the entity is not a PAC (Political Action Committee), it does not have to file a campaign expenditure report with the elections board until Oct. 25, so the board cannot determine whether the entity is violating any campaign-finance laws until that date, Quivey said. Moreover, if the responsible party(ies) spent less than $1,000 before Oct. 17, they will not have to file their expenditures with the Board of Elections until Dec. 14, after the election is over. These guidelines come directly from the Campaign Finance Division of the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, Quivey said in an email to The NEWS.
Longtime Athens resident Colleen Carow said Tuesday that the signs are not helping anyone. Carow said she doesn’t have enough information to support the levy at this time, and plans to vote against it, but she was disappointed to hear about the mysterious anti-levy signs.
“That’s not good for anyone,” Carow said. “It’s not good for the people fighting their cause, and it’s not good for people on the receiving end.” She added that the signs are “a minor thing and they kind of distract from” the issue at hand.