July 31, 2020
By: Tiffany Razzano
PINELLAS COUNTY – James McLynas, a Democratic candidate for Pinellas County sheriff, found a unique way to spread his message: power washing his campaign brand onto sidewalks and other public right of ways throughout the county.
He began pressure washing these images in municipalities throughout the county about a week ago as a final attempt to grab the interest of Pinellas County voters ahead of the Aug. 18 primary election. Democrats will choose between him and Eliseo Santana to run against incumbent Republican Bob Gualtieri for sheriff in November.
In a July 25 post to his campaign’s Facebook page, McLynas wrote, “Sheriff’s Candidate James McLynas runs a really CLEAN campaign. This is the first known example of this technology being used in a political campaign. No pollution, no plastic signs, no removal required. If I can figure out how to campaign unlike any other candidate in the history of politics, imagine what I can do as your Sheriff.”
He told The Free Press that he plans to power wash between 1,000 and 2,000 of these images throughout the county by the primary election.
On social media, many of his supporters lauded his new method for promoting his campaign.
In response to that July 25 post, Alexander Ginader called it “absolutely genius” and Kimberly Drake said it’s “brilliant.”
Meanwhile, David Kesserling, a campaign donor who built McLynas’ website, called it a “creative” promotional method, especially since the candidate has “been blackballed” by many local media outlets.
Not everyone is a fan of his current form of branding, though.
Business owners in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District were upset to find his messages power washed in front of their storefronts after he and his volunteers hit Central Avenue with a cardboard stencil and pressure washer earlier this week.
David Foote, executive director of the Grand Central District Association, said he was contacted by several business owners who were “furious” about the signs.
“Especially because the dollar was on them to rent a pressure washer to clean it off because otherwise, it looked like they were supporting the candidate,” he said.
Though McLynas power washed his brand image on public right of ways, they’re actually maintained by the businesses, Foote said. “The businesses consider it their responsibility. It’s very insensitive to mark your territory in front of a business that has no political affiliation with the candidate or interest in supporting that.”
He said it’s also inconsiderate of the difficulties many businesses are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s about public safety. We’re so in a war right now between customers not wearing masks, not social distancing, and then some jerk puts a political message out,” Foote said. “It’s not being sensitive to their struggles right now.”
In a Facebook message to The Free Press, Thompson Davis Kellett, CEO of Kellett Consulting Group, said he saw three men power washing McLynas’ message in Central Avenue’s 400 Block. When he inquired whether they knew local campaign and signage laws, he alleges they told him, “F*** the law.”
McLynas said he was among the three men approached by Kellett and said that none of his volunteers made this comment.
A Grand Central District business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, called it “a creative way around the law. Basically, it’s a non-permanent form of graffiti.”
She said she was at her business when McLynas and two other men power washed his image on the right of way in front of her store. Despite her asking him not to do so, he pressured washed the message near her business two additional times, she said.
The business owner said she “tends to remain very neutral in (her) political beliefs” and called McLynas “entitled.”
She added, “It was the surprise attack of ‘Hey, I feel like it’s my right to power wash words in front of your business that bothered me. He wouldn’t like it if I showed up at his house and started spraying words on his sidewalks that said negative things or things he’s not comfortable supporting.”
While he acknowledges that he didn’t get permission from every business owner before pressure washing his message onto sidewalks, McLynas said if he saw the owner outside, he did ask them first. If they said no, then he didn’t pressure wash his message there, he said.
The city of St. Petersburg’s Codes Compliance department took notice of these signs after receiving “multiple complaints,” said James Corbett, the department’s director.
The department found the messages to be in violation of section 126.96.36.199 of the city’s municipal code regarding prohibited signs. Corbett said they’re preparing a violation notice to send to McLynas, who will have 10 days to remove the signs. If he doesn’t remove them, he’ll receive another notice to appear in court.
McLynas dismisses the legality of the violation.
In a text message to The Free Press, he wrote, “I have not posted any signs. I have moved dirt. However, if they want to hash this out in court, that would be great. I could use the publicity.”
In an interview, McLynas said his power washed campaign messages aren’t legally considered signs under Florida law. Rather, he considers them “campaign artwork” protected under the First Amendment as free speech, he said.
“This is a public sidewalk. These are public areas. (Nobody has) the legal right to quell free speech,” he added.
He also noted that he reviewed sign ordinances for all Pinellas County municipalities and consulted two attorneys about his plan. They didn’t see “any potential problem or liability,” he said.
Corbett disagrees with this assessment, at least pertaining to St. Petersburg’s code.
“The gist is basically signs that are within or projected over a right of way or publicly owned land are prohibited, except for signs to be used for the city, or public utilities or government signs, like stop signs,” he said. “All other signs are prohibited. It specifically says not put on, projected over or attached in any way to utility poles, bridges and sidewalks.”
In the eyes of local code, he considers these messages to be signs, he added. “The medium is not really important. Even if you power wash it in. If you use language that contains a message, it’s a sign.”
Corbett also stressed that this isn’t a political matter.
“I want to make clear that it doesn’t really matter what the sign said. If it said, ‘Visit McDonald’s on 4th Street,’ it would still be a violation,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the content of the sign. It’s because the sign was placed in the right of way.”
McLynas said in a text message that if the city considers his messages to be campaign signs that are subject to code enforcement, “then damaging or removing or vandalizing them would be a criminal act just like any other campaign sign. The St. Pete Police Department would be obligated to treat it like a crime and arrest anybody that damaged or removed them. It is a double-edged sword for them. They can’t have it both ways.”
In an interview, McLynas said the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office also removed his “campaign signs” from the Pinellas County Courthouse property. On his campaign Facebook page and via text message, he said he’s preparing to file a complaint against Gualtieri for violation of the First Amendment.
In a July 26 Facebook post, he wrote, “It is a violation of campaign law for a candidate to destroy the campaign actions of another candidate. It is another violation to use county resources to do so.”
Sgt. Jessica Mackesy, PCSO public information officer, wrote in a July 30 email that “on county property, there is a designated free speech area and you cannot have political expression except in those designated areas. The removal was completed for only those (messages by McLynas) not in the designated area.”
McLynas said he also pressure washed his message into public property on the street where Gualtieri’s home is located. He alleges the sheriff spray painted over the image.
“His house is just 1,147 feet from where these were vandalized,” McLynas said in a text message. “There are only 27 homes past these on the dead-end road and he is the only one with motive to cross my name out but leave ‘sheriff.’”
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