City council bans all non-governmental signs from public rights of way

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City council bans all non-governmental signs from public rights of way
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the town of Gilbert, Ariz., has had implications in Alexandria, as city council voted 5-2 last weekend to ban all non-governmental signs from the public right of way.

The decision includes banning signs placed on King Street to advertise businesses and political campaign signs on street medians. Mayor Allison Silberberg and City Councilor John Chapman were the two dissenting votes.

In the case “Reed v. Town of Gilbert” decided on June 18, 2015, the Supreme Court found that a section in the town’s signage ordinance that dictated the types of temporary non-governmental signs that could be placed in the public right of way was unconstitutional. The case came after a church had restrictions placed on its use of temporary signs directing parishioners to their services.

City attorney James Banks said at the public hearing that jurisdictions across the country were now scrambling to rewrite their signage ordinances to be in compliance with the ruling and prevent litigation, and that there were three options available for city council to take.

City councilors could vote to completely ban all signs from the public right of way, allow all signs in the public right of way or have a hybrid model that would allow signs in the right of way for a designated period, either 30 or 60 days. The latter would mean that signs for election candidates would still be permissible on public land, but only for a certain period of time.

But any option allowing all signs would allow what Alex Dambach, division chief in the department of planning and zoning, described as “bandit signs” that advertise hookah bars and private individuals willing to buy cars and homes for cash. Currently, those signs are illegal under the city’s signage ordinances.

In a report prepared by city staff, council was urged to ban all signs from the public right of way, in keeping with the same decision made by the planning commission on January 5.

Just a few months removed from election season, discussions mostly focused on the impact of banning political signs from the public right of way within an overall ban, as candidates use available space to advertise their campaigns as early as several months before Election Day. Public testimony centered on the role those political signs play.

“There are a lot of constraints on finances on the front-end of your campaign in any campaign, but particularly for a new person who has to get known in the community,” said Bob Wood, who has run twice for city council. “People have to understand that you’re in the race and in the race for a reason.”

“Campaign signs in the public right of way have been an energetic part of our public discourse for decades,” said Michael Hobbs. “They promote public awareness of our elections and encourage broader citizen participation in those elections, which is a fundamentally important responsibility of our citizenship and undergirds the validity of the government we elect.”

Given the desire to increase voter turnout and ensure voters are educated about those running for office, Silberberg and Chapman spoke in favor of the hybrid system. Silberberg emphasized how critical the time early in the campaign season is for candidates to gain name recognition in the city.

“The question that I have is: Why can’t we see that possibility of a hybrid where we have that 30 or 60 day period and open it up, open up the right of way for 30 to 60 days and take that chance?” she said. “You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. What are we supposed to do?”

Chapman also argued that the city should adopt the hybrid approach, and only abandon it if there is a legal challenge.

“I think if we have the opportunity to do this and do the hybrid approach, and then there is the eventual contest to this, I hate to say it, but couldn’t you pull this back at that point and do the full ban if that’s the case?” he asked. “I hate to sidestep it like that or walk it down like that, but I do see a value of having an opportunity for public signs in the right of way.”

But the possibility of litigation against the city over a hybrid system that could go as far as the Supreme Court over signage loomed large in the discussion. Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and City Councilor Tim Lovain said the city should not risk costly legal action being brought against it, especially since the cost would be borne by taxpayers.

“The possibility of litigation is not at all remote,” said Wilson. “In fact, it’s highly likely, so I think it behooves us as a council with fiduciary responsibility for our taxpayers to provide the strongest, most legally defensible case for us as a community.”

Council’s vote to ban all signs from the public right of way is part of a phased city examination of signage that will next look at their use on private property through the work of the city’s ad hoc group on signage.

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