Political parties have to remove billboards from roundabouts

POSTED: 07/24/14 11:35 PM

Chief Commissioner De Witte: “This is a learning moment”

St. Maarten – “This has been a learning moment,” Chief Commissioner Peter de Witte told this newspaper yesterday about the permit for the placement of political campaign material. The bottom line: parties have to move all billboards they have placed at roundabouts, but flags at bridges and flags and posters on lampposts are allowed to stay put.

On July 8, Justice Minister Dennis Richardson issued a general permit for political parties that contain the conditions for the placement of campaign material. The permit prohibits the placement of campaign material at roundabouts, on bridges and on street furniture. While lampposts were not explicitly mentioned, it is clear that they fall in the latter category.

Last week the police visited political parties that had already placed campaign material in places that violated the permit and gave them the opportunity to move their billboards to different locations. Nothing much happened during the past week – all billboards stayed where they were.

“There were differences of interpretation,” De Witte said. “The criterion is now that the billboards are not allowed to hinder traffic. We have spoken with the parties and agreed that they will move the billboards they have placed at roundabouts. We have concluded that the flags on bridges do not hinder traffic, so they can stay.”

The chief commissioner said that the experience with the permit has been a learning moment for the future. “Next time we will establish clear conditions,” he said.

The discussion about political billboards also drew attention to the placement of regular advertising material on public roads. “There used to be a department that controlled this,” De Witte said. “After the elections we will take another look at that issue.”

Justice Minister Dennis Richardson informed this newspaper that the general permit for political parties has been published in the government information pages in the daily newspapers on July 14, that all political parties have been informed directly about it and that the newspapers also devoted attention to it. “There are no legal requirements to publish such a permit in the National Gazette,” the minister stated.

The permit has not been discussed in the Council of Ministers, Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams said in answer to questions from this newspaper at yesterday’s press briefing. “To understand where we are today we should look at how it came about. In the past Lt. governors have always issued so-called campaign-guidelines. Before the start of the 2014 campaign I discussed this with the minister (of Justice – ed.) – not the public order part, but the other part. He did not have much to go by because the old guidelines are not valid for country St. Maarten.”

Wescot-Williams said that Minister Richardson attempted to find consensus about the permit and issue guidelines all could adhere to. “The Democratic Party in particular was very much in favor of consensus. We did our research and looked at what applies on the French side and in Anguilla. At the very last moment, the minister realized that he was not getting the cooperation – not even feedback – from political parties represented in Parliament. Eventually he had no choice but to issue these guidelines and yes, we could talk until next year about the details.”

The prime minister confirmed that the focus at the police is on traffic safety. When this newspaper pointed out that the permit the minister issued contains very clear conditions and that every party is violating them, Wescot-Williams answered: “I don’t know if you could say that. If you really had to look at the guidelines and take it to the very last letter, then basically nothing would be allowed. You can put down billboards wherever they do not obstruct traffic, that’s what it comes down to. In some areas people have to look around a billboard before they can turn onto a road. That should be more of an issue than something on a lamppost. My feeling is that the police are being very pragmatic about all this.”

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