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St. Petersburg: Proposed law would crack down on dancing sign wavers

Larry Fulks, 57, says his job waving a sign for MIT Computers in St. Petersburg “gave me a chance to get back on my feet.”

DIRK SHADD | Times

Larry Fulks, 57, says his job waving a sign for MIT Computers in St. Petersburg “gave me a chance to get back on my feet.”

ST. PETERSBURG — The days of Lady Liberty waving a torch or dancing chickens clucking at passing cars could soon come to an end on city streets.

Even Elvis wouldn't be allowed to shake his hips on street corners if the City Council amends rules for signs and flags along roadways. The proposed law would prevent human billboards from making movements to catch the eye of drivers and pedestrians.

No more spinning, twirling and swinging while hawking tax services, pizza joints and pawnshops. Sign wavers also would not be allowed to boogie on risers, stilts, podiums, vehicles or roofs.

The towering Uncle Sams, popular at tax time on Fourth and 34th streets, would be grounded.

"This would restrict our ability to do business," said Steven Doletzky, area developer for Liberty Tax Service. "This is how we are known in the United States and Canada. We use them at every store."

The council will consider the new restrictions at a meeting today.

City staffers believe sign wavers create safety issues for passing drivers. Proponents say they provide inexpensive advertising and jobs that pay up to $15 an hour.

A memo sent to the City Council in August doesn't provide examples or data to show that sign wavers cause traffic accidents. Staffers did note that they are "aesthetically out of keeping with the purpose and intent of sign regulations."

The proposed ordinance also would limit firms to one sign waver during business hours.

The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce opposes the proposed restrictions.

The business group said human signs are used all over the country and should be allowed as long as they don't pose hazards.

"Our economy still needs every job," said Chris Steinocher, chamber CEO. "You don't want government interfering in that. They're trying to legitimize taste."

A business owner affiliated with a chamber group employed four sign wavers, Steinocher said, adding that one was a homeless man who was then able to save for an apartment.

Liberty Tax Service operates eight stores and employs more than 100 sign wavers in St. Petersburg. The firm has used the advertising tool for 13 years.

Doletzky said the ordinance could impact the firm's bottom line.

"I would have to evaluate the effect of that," Doletzky said. "Most city governments have more important matters to deal with."

Doletzky also pointed to the irony of elected officials deciding the issue since they use sign wavers, billboards and street signs to promote their political campaigns.

Politicians would be exempt since political speech cannot be regulated like commercial speech.

Council member Karl Nurse said he isn't concerned about sign wavers shaking their booties to passing drivers.

"I think it's a fad," he said, laughing. "They should just stay out of right of ways."

The City Council recently approved the use of electronic billboards over objections that they could be a dangerous distraction to drivers.

City officials said there is a difference between digital billboards and sign wavers.

Electronic billboards are on fixed poles away from the street and the proposed time for each message is five minutes, said Dave Goodwin, the city's head of economic development and planning.

Sign wavers, he said, toss signs a few feet from passing cars.

"There is a lot more opportunity for movement and distraction," Goodwin said. "Human beings can do more movement."

St. Petersburg isn't alone in its efforts to regulate sign wavers.

Lakeland tried to ban human billboards in August, but businesses objected. Instead, the city limited firms to one sign waver and ordered them to stay out of rights of way.

Vince Cocks, vice president of Faith House, a halfway house in St. Petersburg, said people in transitional housing rely on sign-spinning jobs while rebounding from drug and crime issues.

"This is an overreach by city leaders," Cocks said. "If automobile accidents were being caused, then steps should be taken. To date, this hasn't happened."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

If you go

The St. Petersburg City Council will meet at 3 p.m. today at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N. In addition to talking about the new restrictions on sign wavers, the group also is slated to hear about plans to expand the city's red-light camera program.

St. Petersburg: Proposed law would crack down on dancing sign wavers 10/17/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 18, 2012 8:20am]
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