BY DAVID JAMES HEISS
When the city of Gilbert, Ariz. tried to regulate signs of a “homeless” Good News Presbyterian Church, which had posted temporary signs providing directions for visitors to their services, it resulted in legal challenges that led all the way to the Supreme Court, which sided with the church and unanimously decided that the city was trying to regulate sign content.
Signs, such as political signs for an election, were being regulated differently based on their content.
Nonpolitical, non-ideological and non-commercial signs such as the ones used by the Good News Church were allowed to be put up 12 hours before and one hour after events in Gilbert, whereas political signs could be posted 60 days prior to and 15 days after elections.
Sometimes the church couldn’t remove their 17 signs within their one-hour deadline. Gilbert sent them an advisery notice; the pastor and city staff were unable to agree to any accommodations, as city staff told the church that it would not make any “special exceptions” for their signs.
All nine justices on the Supreme Court sided with the church, determining that the city’s sign ordinance restrictions could not survive strict scrutiny, since the town had no compelling government interest in requiring the church’s temp signs to be removed each day after a service.
At the Beaumont July 20 city council meeting, the city mulled potential changes to its municipal code regarding its sign ordinance.
Mayor Pro Tem Lloyd White urged city to follow policy set forth by neighboring communities.
“When I ran for political office as a challenger and not an incumbent, the city used the sign ordinance rules to harass me,” claiming that it was directed specifically towards him, White said. “I was running against three incumbents, and not one of them spoke up” to defend his rights, instead choosing to benefit from his disadvantage.
According to White, most signs seen on private property are owned by corporations or land owners that are not city residents.
“If you try to play by the rules and follow the rules as I did because you knew you were going to be harassed, it just became a nightmare for me. When I ran for state senate, I still had that understanding of rules and permits,” White said.
He visited each of the 17 cities within the senate district to understand their rules about posting political signs, and discovered that only three had strict regulations.
Beaumont, Yucaipa and Highland were the only municipalities to require permits for signs, and White expressed that 45 day limits outlined in the proposed municipal code’s proposed text were too restrictive and unrealistic to provide exposure for candidates.
Professional companies that come out and put up signs do not pay attention to regulations, and simply put them up “everywhere,” White said.
He urged less regulation on political and noncommercial signs, and make enforcement and policing of signs less of a headache for city employees.
Councilman David Fenn pointed out the trouble that a strict ordinance could have on other types of signs.
“There are yard sale signs, open house signs, A-frame signs, yard sale signs taped to cars parked in a bad spot,” said Fenn, who is in real estate. “Am I out of compliance if I do an open house and I haven’t filed for a permit ahead of time?”
He wondered if an ordinance governing political signs could have residual effects for other types of temporary signs.
Fenn admitted “I looked at the hassle I would have to go through and decided it it’s not worth it” to go through the process of getting permits for all of his signs when he ran for office.
The harder the city makes it for candidates to run could result in fewer candidates choosing to go through all the trouble, Fenn implied.
“If we have a rule, we have to account for all the signs that are out there,” Fenn said.
Councilman Julio Martinez recalled his frustration that out-of-town candidates would have signs all over the place, that “would just pop up anywhere.”
He took issue that the proposed ordinance of allowing temporary signs 45 days prior to an event and being allowed to remain up to 10 days after could be taken down, then technically put back up for another 45 days. “We could create eyesores because we’re trying to do the good thing” by not having restrictions. The question goes to ‘What is little regulation mean? Are we going to have sign restrictions on size and placement and numbers; and who’s going to enforce this?”
Martinez dealt with people calling about his campaign violating sign rules, but observed that other candidates seemed to get away with those same violations.
“There were candidates running for the water district who weren’t following the ordinance because they didn’t live in the city, but people in our city were following the ordinance” that led to an advantage for outsiders, Martinez said. “If we’re going to treat this like the whole, I’m concerned where the line would be drawn.”
Councilman Rey Santos and Mayor Mike Lara indicated that they preferred a “clean” city not littered with signs.
White advocated to not require permits, since those who break the rules will put up signs anyway.
“If the city is just going to take down signs, whether they’re political signs, church signs, Cherry Festival signs” that may violate rules, it’s the responsibility of the owner — who paid money for those signs — to follow the rules,” pointing out that losing a $60 picket sign “is on you” as a candidate, White said.
White advocated for all rules to apply to everyone, reminding his colleagues that for his last campaign “I was the only one who filled out a permit, and I wasn’t the only one running.”
Permits add another layer of bureaucracy and puts the onus of enforcement on the city when it should not have to play that role, White said.
It seems more expensive for a candidate to violate an ordinance than to go through the process of obtaining a permit, according to White.
Discussion ensued about a requirement to remove political signs within a specific timeframe, which City Attorney John Pinkney cautioned against discriminating which kinds of signs should be regulated.
He told the council that the city would be justified not allowing anything but government signs in right-of-ways, since it would not target specific entities or events.
The ordinance presented for discussion on July 20 provided for a maximum of 30 days for temporary signs, with a maximum of 50 signs as long as they are no larger than 24 inches by 18 inches.
It was recommended changing the allowance of signs to be three feet from a curb rather than the proposed five feet, since some curbs do not have five feet of space to work with, as long as signs do not limit traffic’s line of sight.
White recommended removing encroachment permits during election season for all signs. Beaumont’s city council will address a revised recommended municipal code amendment at a future council meeting.