Despite a potential $25K fine, a Stratford citizens' group vows to keep its lawn signs up

The Stratford city clerk's office has asked a high-profile citizens' group to remove its signs from front lawns across the city or they will be removed and, if convicted, the group could face a potential $25,000 fine under Ontario's election laws.

If convicted, violators could face a maximum fine of $25K under Ontario election laws

Get Concerned Stratford, a citizens' group that fought hard against a Chinese glass manufacturer setting up shop on the city's rim, now faces a potential fine of $25,000 for allegedly breaking the city's third-party advertising rules for municipal elections. (Supplied by Get Concerned Stratford)

A citizens' group has vowed to leave up dozens of controversial lawn signs that have raised the ire of City Hall after municipal officials sent a notice to Get Concerned Stratford, telling the group the signs violate Ontario municipal election rules and, if they aren't removed, could result in a maximum $25,000 fine if convicted. 

Anyone familiar with the Xinyi manufacturing controversy will recognize the orange-and-brown signs with a grey factory belching out smoke, and the words "restore public trust" and "Stratford city council: say no to Xinyi."

They sprouted from city lawns by the hundreds last year as controversy raged at Stratford City Hall and Toronto's Queen's Park when Get Concerned Stratford accused government officials of subverting democracy by issuing a Municipal Zoning Order, or MZO, a power that allows the province to issue a decree on a piece of land that can't be appealed by community groups or Ontario's Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.

Now the signs are out again. This time, they've been plastered with white stickers that say, "Voting for a new council member? We remember," a message the Stratford city clerk's office alleges is a clear violation of third-party advertising rules under Ontario's municipal election laws if they aren't removed by Oct. 7.

'You can't threaten people.'

"We're not taking them down. You can't threaten people, that's not right. It's just a silly complaint," Sharon Collingwood, a Get Concerned Stratford spokesperson, told CBC News on Monday.

"The city has threatened to take them down on the 7th, and if they take them down on the 7th, I guess that means legal fees for us." 

Collingwood said there are about 100 signs in total, all located on private property after they were requested by homeowners in the city through Get Concerned Stratford's website. 

We're not taking them down. You can't threaten people, that's not right. It's just a silly complaint.- Sharon Collingwood, Get Concerned Stratford

Stratford city clerk Tatiana Dafoe did not return a request for comment from CBC News by publication time Tuesday. 

However, CBC News obtained and reviewed the four-page letter sent by Dafoe's office to Get Concerned Stratford on Sept. 30, 2022. The letter states the group is not registered as a third-party political advertiser, and as such cannot erect signs that "express support, promotion or opposition to a candidate" between May 1 and Oct. 24. 

"Only those who have registered with the city can spend money on third-party advertising," Dafoe wrote. 

"All the stuff we're talking about is recycled, so we're not talking about tons of money here," Collingwood said, adding the signs are left over from approximately 1,000 signs that were distributed to homes across the city during the glass factory controversy.

"We said we were going to save them and put them out at the next election so that people would remember Xinyi and all the things that went on, so we did."

What the group wants people to remember, according to Collingwood, is how much of council business on Xinyi was conducted behind closed doors during in-camera meetings, which the public is barred from attending. 

She also said the signs don't specifically support or oppose any candidate — they're intended to be a reminder of what took place last year, when the city was still dealing with the controversy. 

"Our signs don't mention any names. People interpret the signs their way. You'll see all sorts of different candidates paired with our signs, incumbents and non-incumbents."