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Some folks in Mountain Park feel the homeowners association has gone too far in limiting political signs

by: STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY VERN UYETAKE,

Some Mountain Park homeowners say their free speech rights are being violated while they are forced to take down political signs in their yards and homes.

As a result, two residents say they will ask the Oregon Legislature to pass a law that prohibits homeowners associations from infringing on First Amendment rights.

Any change would come too late to allow Mountain Park residents to display signs before the Nov. 4 election.

The Mountain Park Homeowners Association recently called for the removal of more than a dozen signs after they popped up during the election season.

The signs included placards supporting presidential candidates as well as candidates for Congress and the Clackamas County Commission.

The Mountain Park Homeowners Association prohibits all signs except 'For Sale' signs through rules adopted in 1968. The rules are typical of many homeowners associations, where regulations govern paint color on homes, fences and other things that help keep the communities tidy.

Tim Warren, president of the board of directors of the homeowners association, said the association received complaints about campaign signs, prompting officials to ask for their removal. Residents who don't comply face sanctions. Other types of signs have also been removed.

But resident William Clemons, who was among roughly 13 homeowners whose political signs came down, is frustrated. Clemons' sign was on the inside of a front window in his home. He said signs inside the home have not been a problem in past elections, only signs on lawns.

'They just hit a raw nerve when they told me to take it out of the inside of my window. It seems to me it is a fundamental right of Americans (to have it),' he said.

But the rules governing the Mountain Park Homeowners Association differ from First Amendment guidelines that protect citizens from government censorship.

The homeowners association is a for-profit corporation, not a government entity. Warren said people who live in Mountain Park enter into a contract with the homeowner association in which they volunteer to do certain things.

'For one thing, the resident agrees to abide by the CC and Rs,' said Warren, who compares the rules to corporate policies that might prevent an employee from wearing a campaign button at work.

'The CC and R's, which define the rights and obligations of the association and its members, state explicitly that signs are prohibited. It's a contract. Members who violate the restrictions in the CC and R's are subject to sanctions,' he said.

While Warren said the board is willing to put new ideas to a vote, he thinks members like Clemons should lead the charge. He encouraged Clemons and others to initiate an election to change the rules. Two-thirds of voting members of the Mountain Park Homeowners Association would have to approve. 

Clemons believes the board is shirking its responsibility to update Mountain Park policies. He also believes the group is selectively enforcing the sign rule.

After a series of unsuccessful meetings with the board, he photographed 52 signs in a two-hour walk around Mountain Park. His collection of photos is online at http://picasa

web.google.com/

mtnparkwill/mtnpark

signs. It includes signs advertising contractors, apartments for rent, alarm companies, sports teams and decorative signs that welcome guests or block off parking.

'They say they're not selectively enforcing but they clearly are,' said Clemons. 'They haven't done a darn thing about any of the other stuff.'

He believes the board could relax the sign policy during elections with a simple motion. A previous board made a similar change in 1978, which allowed for a single campaign sign on each property 30 days prior to an election. That change was rescinded by a subsequent board eight years later.

That the current rules still allow 'For Sale' signs is a sticking point. Mountain Park issues its own 'For Sale' signs to keep things orderly when a home is for sale.

But Brian Willoughby, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the distinction between the type of speech allowed in the approved signs could pose problems if the issue ever went to court.

'We're simply not sure that a homeowners association could enforce a rule like this if it got pushed into the court system and that's because it's a bad one in that it makes a distinction between political and commercial speech,' Willoughby said.

'It clearly violates the state constitution,' which prohibits rules that govern speech based on content, he said.

Willoughby believes the issue is best resolved in Mountain Park, where the board can clarify its policy and eliminate the 'slippery slope.'

But Clemons now plans another route.

After knocking on doors to talk with other residents whose political signs were removed, he met with Ray Phelps, a former lobbyist who once worked as the state's director of elections between 1977 and 1987. The duo now plan to take the issue to the Oregon Legislature and are stumping for others to join the cause.

Clemons believes the route will be more effective than an election in Mountain Park and less expensive than a court fight. He wants Oregon in step with other states that have adopted laws to prevent homeowners associations from infringing on free speech.

Those states include California and Washington on the West Coast.