Saturday, March 15, 2014

Updated: Fortuna Rethinking Sign Ordinance

Posted By on Sat, Mar 15, 2014 at 8:21 AM

click to enlarge This stock photo has absolutely nothing to do with Fortuna. But, it does include lots of friendly looking people with signs.
  • This stock photo has absolutely nothing to do with Fortuna. But, it does include lots of friendly looking people with signs.
The Fortuna City Council voted 4-1, with Councilman Dean Glaser dissenting, Monday to amend its campaign sign ordinance.

The amendment lifts decades-long provisions that limited the placement of campaign signs until just 30 days prior to Election Day and required that signs be no bigger than four square feet. While proponents of the change said it comes in response to the facts that about half of the county’s voters now cast ballots by mail well in advance of the election and that the ordinance was possibly in conflict with free speech laws, others saw nefarious political maneuvering at hand.

“I think this was stinking from the very beginning,” Glaser said the morning after the vote. “To me, it was orchestrated by people who want to promote their candidate. It just reeks of cronyism, that’s all there is to it.”

No city council seats are up for election this year. In fact, the only high-profile race Fortuna will have a hand in deciding is that for district attorney. According to candidate webpages, Council Members Mike Losey, Sue Long and Tami Trent have all endorsed Maggie Fleming’s bid for the position. Glaser has endorsed Allan Dollison’s campaign. Mayor Doug Strehl has not publicly endorsed any of the four candidates vying for the position.

Earlier post:
The city of Fortuna is pondering plunging into Humboldt County’s famed lawn sign wars a bit early this year.

The Friendly City has long had one of the most restrictive election sign ordinances in Humboldt County, preventing residents from bedazzling their yards with political pleas until just 30 days prior to Election Day. The county allows signs 90 days prior.

But the Fortuna City Council will consider passing an urgency ordinance Monday that would suspend section 17.05.180(D)(1)(b) (the sign ordinance) of the city municipal code for six months, essentially allowing a signage free-for-all from now through November. Mayor Doug Strehl said he raised the issue at a prior council meeting and there was a consensus to bring the item back for a full discussion.

Strehl said he’s spoken to a host of Fortunans who vote by mail and said they generally send of their ballots off shortly after getting them — usually just about a month prior to the big day. (Nearly half of Humboldt's electorate now votes by mail.) Consequently, Strehl said, these folks miss out on the opportunity to let political signs shape their decisions, adding that more than a few have told him they may have voted differently on a proposition or two if they’d had the benefit of the signage, and the discussion that often accompanies them.

“I just brought it up as an agenda item so we could talk about it as a council. Whether it gets changed or not will depend on how everybody else feels,” Strehl said, adding that he has some concerns the signage prohibition changes the way candidates campaign in Fortuna and, possibly, limits locals’ access to the candidates themselves. “Fortuna is a great town but, at the same time, we want people to look at Fortuna as a good place to campaign.”

No city council seats are up for election this year. In fact, the only high-profile race Fortuna will have a hand in deciding is that for district attorney. So where do city council members’ allegiances lie in that particular race — the only local race that promises to be impacted by Monday’s decision? Glad you asked.

According to candidate webpages, Counsel Members Mike Losey, Sue Long and Tami Trent have all endorsed Maggie Fleming’s bid for the position. Councilman Dean Glaser has endorsed Allan Dollison’s campaign. Strehl has not publicly endorsed any of the four candidates vying for the position. So, it will be interesting to see where Monday’s discussion goes and if any candidate’s supporters make a concerted effort to show up and weigh in.

As to why the council is pursuing an urgency ordinance to suspend the sign rules instead of simply changing the ordinance, it takes a months-long public process to change a city ordinance. So, in order for any changes to take effect before the June primary, an urgency ordinance was the only option. In the backdrop of all this, there’s also a larger legal question.

City staff is warning the council in its staff report that courts have consistently struck down local sign ordinances that treat political signage differently then other types, finding they infringe on free-speech and equal protection rights. Fortuna currently treats commercial speech, or advertising, differently than political signs. A billboard kerfuffle a couple of years back in a Humboldt County supervisors race underscored how Fortuna treats the two differently, and illustrated how something is notably absent from the sign ordinance.

Those interesting in tuning in Monday can catch the council meeting at 6 p.m. on Access Humboldt (video will also later be posted on the Access Humboldt website) or head on down to Fortuna City Hall, 621 11th St.
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