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Environmental court takes on the candidates.

With Election Day a seemingly distant memory, the city is beginning to recover some sense of normalcy. Gone are TV ads about family values and the pipe-dream promises of myriad I-approve-this messages.

But on telephone poles, in empty lots, and on curbside greens, the fight is not over.

The recent election season saw over 20 million campaign signs posted on public property nationwide. For campaigns concerned with putting the signs up, the difficult task now becomes tracking them all down. In addition to being an eyesore, signs that overstay their welcome blur the line between "free speech" and "litter."

Judge Larry Potter of the Shelby County Environmental Court has overseen over 50 lawsuits against offending candidates, including Bob Corker, Harold Ford Jr., and Phil Bredesen. Cases are still pending against a few fringe candidates who posted signs on street medians.

"These signs are a very real problem during political season," Potter said. "They are a public nuisance."

Environmental court does not have any jurisdiction over political signage on private property. The Shelby County zoning ordinance provides that "temporary political campaign or referendum signs including their supporting structures are permitted provided they are erected no longer than 90 days prior to an election and are not placed upon utility poles or within public rights-of-way."

But according to Larry Jenkins, chief zone and sign inspector for Shelby County Code Enforcement, there is no official timeframe for the signs to be taken down.

This can cause campaigns to get lax in cleaning up the mess, particularly those of losing candidates who used all their money and volunteer power during the race itself.

Potter hopes people know that the court takes these matters seriously. Since January 2005, environmental court has fined over 35 different candidates.

"Fines are based on a per-sign basis. I usually do it on a sliding scale," says Potter. "We have people that put out 300 or 400 signs at once, and we do get quite serious with them. It all depends on the number of signs."

The court can assess up to $50 plus court costs per sign, though penalties differ depending on the nature of the signs.

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