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Clearwater needs to rewrite its sign ordinance

The public expects its government officials to use reason and common sense in the writing and enforcement of laws. But Clearwater officials haven't displayed much of either in enforcing the city sign ordinance against two business owners who put artwork on the exterior walls of their buildings. At their work session Monday, Clearwater City Council members need to launch a rewrite of the offending portions of the sign ordinance and set a new direction for City Manager Bill Horne and his code enforcers.

City Council members also ought to be concerned about their legal department, because in both cases, the city's attorneys set Clearwater on a path that led to unnecessary expense, public ridicule and losses in court.

At Monday's meeting, the council will discuss whether to pay $55,000 to Clearwater bait shop owner Herb Quintero to settle his federal lawsuit against the city. Clearly, the city was going to lose the lawsuit anyway. It is fortunate that Quintero seems willing to settle the suit despite the city's wrongheaded actions.

Quintero was cited by the city for a violation of the sign code after he had a local artist paint a mural of game fish such as snook and grouper on the outside of his new bait and tackle shop, the Complete Angler, at 705 N Fort Harrison Ave. The fish were to be part of an underwater scene depicting local sea life, but the artist didn't get finished before Quintero was cited and fined almost $700.

The city contended that the fish constituted an unpermitted sign. The city sign code forbids murals on commercial buildings that portray a product the business sells. The city stood firm that the fish were a sign, not art, even though Quintero's shop doesn't sell game fish and the art work contained no text or logo, as a sign typically would.

Quintero refused to paint over the fish, but when the fines kept accruing, he covered the fish with a banner that promoted free speech by quoting the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Unbelievably, the city cited Quintero for displaying an unauthorized banner.

Quintero sued and was represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. His case became a cause celebre on the Internet and the city was inundated with critical letters and e-mails.

After a preliminary hearing in March, U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins wrote that the evidence appeared to support Quintero's arguments that the fish were not a commercial sign and that the city had interfered with his First Amendment rights. In April, U.S. District Judge James D. Whitte- more issued an injunction to stop Clearwater from fining Quintero until the case could be heard in court. He said the city's case "does not withstand strict scrutiny."

Seeing the writing on the wall, Clearwater's attorneys began negotiating a proposed settlement with Quintero. If approved by the City Council, Quintero will get $55,000, most of which will go to pay his lawyers, and he'll get to keep and finish the mural on his building.

Should the city have seen this coming? Absolutely. Aside from the issue of common sense, the city already had lost a similar court case. In 2006, an artist painstakingly etched decorative hieroglyphics all over the outside wall of a new Egyptian restaurant called Piramida on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. To any reasonable person, the hieroglyphics were art, but the city claimed they were an illegal sign. The restaurant owner covered them up and sued. A judge ruled the hieroglyphics were not a sign.

The city legal staff contended the judge's decision was a narrow ruling that applied only to the Piramida situation. The city now says the same about the Quintero case. That's legal nitpicking. It is apparent the city has problems with its code regarding murals, with its definition of a sign, and with its attorneys' legal interpretations and advice.

It is a shame that these two cases put a stain on Clearwater's history as a community that stood strong for strict but sensible sign laws for more than two decades. The city's visual landscape was transformed as those laws gradually and legally eliminated portable signs, billboards and towering business signs. Now, the City Council needs to assert itself and do the work necessary to reclaim that reputation for reasonableness and common sense.

Clearwater needs to rewrite its sign ordinance 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 11:44am]
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