Tom Eaton typically deals with complaints about overgrown lawns, garbage in a back yard or a misplaced fence.
Eaton is the part-time zoning administrator in the northern Minnesota city of Baudette, and he’s started an uproar in town after ordering residents to remove their political signs and flags.
“This sign issue was nowhere on my radar,” he said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d be fighting over a sign ordinance.”
Months after the end of the 2020 election, disputes over campaign signs are still causing a ruckus in several Minnesota communities, including Baudette. Protests over orders to remove yard signs has some cities reconsidering their statutes.
State law says yard signs can’t be restricted 46 days before and 10 days after an election. But outside of that period, local governments can limit the size and number of signs. The ordinances are mainly about aesthetics: to prevent neighborhoods from being littered with old, tattered signs.
The Baudette ordinance states that campaign signs must be removed 10 days after the election, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
After receiving a few complaints, Eaton sent warning letters to 28 people, all with Trump signs or flags in the town of about 1,000 people. Five refused to comply, including Mayor Rick Rone who has a Trump flag on his house.
“I took the signs out of my yard by the deadline,” Rone said. “But I have a flag on my porch that’s been there for almost a year probably.”
The requests to remove yard signs led to accusations of political bias. Eaton is a vocal Democrat in a county where 70 percent of voters chose former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
“(Eaton) had lots of Biden signs in his yard, and he’s the zoning individual that enforces that ordinance,” said Devlin Reasy, who owns a local auto repair business and was told to take down a Trump 2020 billboard. He has a state Department of Transportation permit for the billboard.
Eaton said the letters weren’t political. He said he sent letters to people with Trump signs because those were the only ones he received complaints about. “The city wrote the ordinances. They hired me to enforce them. So that’s what I thought I was doing,” he said.
Eaton said the sheriff refused to cite the people violating the ordinance. The sheriff didn’t respond to an interview request.
Baudette city leaders came up with a solution to the dispute. At a late February City Council meeting, Mayor Rone made a motion to repeal the disputed portion of the sign ordinance. The repeal passed unanimously.
Rone thinks the sign ordinance is one that probably shouldn’t have been enforced. “There’s a whole bunch of ordinances we don’t enforce, and nobody has a problem with it,” he said. “I mean there’s been campaign signs up forever and a day ... and nothing’s ever been said or even mentioned about it.”
While some residents accuse Eaton of playing politics, Rone said the zoning administrator — who the mayor convinced to come out of retirement to take the job a couple of years ago — isn’t the bad guy.
But Eaton said he believes the mayor has put him in a bad spot.
“It’s nice that if you’re violating the law, you can just make a motion to repeal the law, and then you’re off the hook,” Eaton said. “Small town politics. It’s dog eat dog.”
Eaton now wonders if he can carry on with his job enforcing zoning laws. “I don’t need this grief,” he said.
Eaton and the mayor agree on one thing: They’d like to see an end to the political divisiveness driving this dispute.
The flags and signs are still up in Baudette while the city attorney crafts new language for an updated sign ordinance.
Meanwhile, Reasy said his Trump billboard was vandalized. Someone painted the word “loser” across it. He’s not taking it down, though. He’s purchased a section of blue vinyl to place over the spray painted “loser.” The blue vinyl says “greatest president ever.”
“And then in small print it says, ‘in my opinion,’” he said.
Reasy is ready to go to court to protect his sign, but he doesn’t think that will be necessary. He expects the city to limit restrictions on political speech.
Baudette isn’t the only Minnesota town dealing with an uproar over signs. Brainerd is also reviewing its ordinance after letters ordering people to remove signs caused a backlash.
Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux said city staff responded to complaints about signs and sent more than 70 letters to residents with a variety of non-commercial signs in their yards.
He called it an overreaction. “I felt that this was an instance where I don’t think we needed to be riling up the roosters in the hen house,” Badeaux said. “Everything has become so politicized … that people have become very enraged about a lot of this stuff. And it’s sad to see that happen.”
City staff have been told to temporarily stop enforcing the ordinance while the planning commission reviews the language. Badeaux expects city leaders to develop a less restrictive ordinance.
“But if there’s no regulation of it whatsoever, it’ll just be pandemonium,” he said. “We have to have ordinances to make sure that it’s not a giant mess. We don’t want thousands of signs all around.”
But as cities consider how to regulate the growing number of political signs in yards, University of Minnesota professor and first amendment expert Jane Kirtley warns that they should tread lightly.
“I think it’s fair to say that any restrictions on non-commercial signs on people’s residential property are constitutionally suspect. That’s not to say you couldn’t craft them in a way that they would withstand constitutional scrutiny,” Kirtley said.
She points out that courts have ruled such restrictions need to address a compelling interest.
“And aesthetics, you know, making the neighborhood look nice, the courts have said is not a compelling interest.”