By Joe Murchison

A temporary ban on campaigning by candidates for city office has caused confusion among three announced mayoral candidates, and one of them has been hit with a $1,000 fine.

John Kish, chairman of the election board, emailed a letter dated June 23 to people who had picked up candidate application packets for the mayor and city council election, which will take place on Nov. 7. “Until such time as a complete candidate packet has been filed with the Board of Election Supervisors and the person has been Certified as a candidate by the Board, no official candidate signs or materials shall be disseminated to the public,” the letter said.  The words “Certified as a candidate by the Board” were in bold type.

Kish said in an interview that he was not aware that this rule was any different from previous elections. He said that the board did not open any submitted packets until after the filing deadline of July 21, and that the board then needed to await a review of packet-included campaign finance reports by the city’s Ethics Commission before officially certifying candidates. Final certification might not occur until around Aug. 4, he said.

Three announced candidates for mayor — city council members Martin Mitchell, Brencis Smith and Keith Sydnor — had already begun distributing signs or campaign literature when the letter came out.

Sydnor noted that he began campaigning on May 1, the first day candidate packets were available from the city council clerk’s office. Sydnor said he filed his packet the same day, except for the finance report, which was to be submitted later to cover campaign transactions up to July 21. 

Sydnor said in his previous council campaigns in 2017, 2019 and 2021, he had begun campaigning after submitting the partial packet. “It was never an issue,” he said.

“When I received that letter, I suspended my campaign,” Sydnor said. “I don’t agree with it, but I’m abiding by it.”

A week and a half after Kish sent out the letter, Brencis Smith and supporters marched in the city’s Independence Day parade, distributing campaign literature to spectators along the route.

Smith said in an interview that he had not read Kish’s letter at the time, and found it in his email afterward. “That’s the only time I was campaigning,” he said.

Martin Mitchell has been the only one of the three to distribute yard signs. He contested the no-campaign rule in a letter to Kish dated July 9.

“I see no violation of City election law by campaigning for an office prior to being certified by the Board,” Mitchell wrote. “Your letter contains no citation to legal authority. Respectfully, this position is without legal basis and raises First Amendment issues. … If a person identifies themselves as a candidate and engages in typical campaign activities, there is no harm if they ultimately fail to meet the certification requirements.”

Mitchell questioned another election rule as well. He noted that, while the election board had set July 21 as the filing deadline, the city code says, “All individuals wishing to have their name included on a ballot as a candidate for public office shall … file a completed certificate of candidacy on the forms prescribed and provided by the board on or before 12:00 noon on the last Friday in the month of September of the year that the election is to be held.”

In an interview, Kish said that he believes the “on or before” wording of the law allows the election board to set the filing deadline at a date before the last Friday in September.

Mitchell and the election board also have tussled over the placement of signs. Kish notified Mitchell the week of July 9 that officials had pulled 13 of his signs from public right-of-ways around the city and that he needed to pick them up at city hall by July 14 or they would be thrown away.

Mitchell said he then received a notice on July 17 that the election board was fining him $1,000 for campaign violations. 

Kish said in an interview that Mitchell had paid the money, but that Mitchell also had asked to appear before the board to dispute the fine. 

Kish said the election board had not fined Smith or Sydnor for any campaign violations. Mitchell and his campaign helpers “didn’t listen to us,” he said. “They were still putting up signs when we asked them not to.”