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Candidates Squabble Over Signs : Politics: Race between Thomas Townsend and Kelvin D. Filer for Compton court commission is marked by controversy over campaign posters.

October 20, 1994|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each year at election time, candidates in Compton paper the city with campaign signs. Without fail, the brightly colored posters appear on fences, lawns, street corners and utility poles.

Compton Municipal Court Commissioner Thomas Townsend planned to do the same this year as part of his campaign to become a judge. He spent $2,500 on signs and scattered 50 of them across the city. But Townsend's plan encountered unexpected trouble.

Last month, Compton officials notified Townsend that some of the placards violated a municipal law that prohibits political signs at intersections, on fences and private property without an owner's permission. Townsend was told he would have to remove the signs.

Townsend, who is running against fellow Commissioner Kelvin D. Filer for Municipal Court judge, claims officials have singled him out by enforcing a law they have ignored since it was written 16 years ago. Officials say they have enforced the ordinance in several previous elections and focused on Townsend this time because he is the only candidate using campaign signs.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 27, 1994 Home Edition Long Beach Part J Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Municipal Court Commissioners Thomas Townsend and Kelvin D. Filer are vying for Compton Municipal Court judge in the Nov. 8 election. A headline in the Oct. 20 editions incorrectly identified the position they are seeking.

Townsend took the city to court, and this week the two sides struck a deal: Townsend agreed to drop a request for a temporary restraining order against the city, and officials agreed to allow Townsend's signs to remain while the city's attorneys review the law. The two sides reached their agreement after several behind-the-scenes meetings with Superior Court Judge Owen Lee Kwong.

But the brief legal ordeal has soured Townsend on politics and left city officials to ponder whether the law is constitutional.

"I would never run for office again," said Townsend, 52, a Carson resident who is making his first bid for elected office. "Who in their right mind would want to go through this?"

City Atty. Legrand H. Clegg said his office is reviewing the law because of concerns raised during the closed-door meetings that the ordinance's language may be too sweeping. He would not elaborate, other than to say he wants to ensure the measure does not infringe on First Amendment rights.

"When we reviewed the issues raised by (Townsend's attorney), we agreed there may be some legitimate questions regarding the constitutionality of the ordinance," Clegg said. "We agreed not to enforce the ordinance until we reviewed it in its entirety."

The trouble began late last month after Townsend ran a hard-hitting ad in a local newspaper against Filer, who served 12 years on the Compton school board. The ad said that under Filer's leadership as president of the board, the school district incurred massive debt, had the lowest academic scores in the state and suffered a state takeover. The ad questioned how much time Filer, a lawyer, devoted to his school board position because of a rigorous work schedule. Filer, who decided not to seek reelection when his board term expired last year, dismissed the criticisms as negative campaign material.

The day after the advertisement was published Sept. 29, Townsend received a call from a city code enforcement officer notifying him that all of his signs would have to be removed, according to court documents. Townsend moved about five signs that he said appeared to violate the city's law, but he refused to take any down.

Townsend contends that someone in Filer's camp contacted the city about his signs. Filer denies that he directed anyone to call the city. But he said he received several calls from community leaders angered by Townsend's ad and the harsh tone of his campaign. Some callers also were upset that Townsend had placed campaign signs on private property without asking permission, a violation of the city's law, Filer said. The callers told Filer they contacted the city on their own, he said.

"People are really upset," said Filer, 38, who plans to put up about 500 signs this weekend in legal locations in Compton and other cities in the judicial district, which stretches from Carson to Paramount. "(Townsend's aggressive campaign) is totally inappropriate for a judicial race. I refuse to stoop to that level. I'm going to run a positive campaign, touting the reasons I believe I should be elected."

Filer said he used campaign signs in previous school board elections but that he always complied with the city's ordinance. Filer said he plans to spend $20,000 to $30,000 to pay for ads in local newspapers, mailers and commercials on local cable channels. Townsend, who plans to spend about $30,000 on his campaign, is relying on his magenta-yellow-green signs and newspaper ads to get his name out.

Lost amid the uproar over the signs has been any discussion of the candidates themselves. Both are Municipal Court commissioners who carry out many of the same duties as judges, such as conducting civil-law trials and preliminary hearings for felony cases.

Townsend, a lawyer for 25 years, has been a commissioner in Compton since April, 1991. He has served in the Los Angeles County public defender's office and in private practice, focusing partly on criminal defense work. Townsend also has served as president of the South-Central Bar Assn.

Townsend bases part of his platform on his tough stand on violent crime. He pledges to set high bails for serious felony cases so that potentially violent defendants can be held in custody until trial.

Filer, a court commissioner in Compton since last December, has worked for the state public defender's office and in private practice for the last 14 years.

Filer grew up in Compton and has served as president of the Compton Chamber of Commerce, in addition to his years on the Compton school board. He says that four terms as president of the often contentious school board helped him develop the even temperament necessary for judges.

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