Public banner ordinance language stalled

ENCINITAS — The city will continue to bar nonprofit groups from using the light poles along Coast Highway 101 for their advertising banners despite attempts to craft new language for the ordinance that governs the approval of such use. 

The City Council voted Aug. 22 to create a subcommittee to revise the rules regarding the use of the poles and appointed Councilman James Bond and Councilman Mark Muir to the panel. Bond and Muir were tasked to come up with revisions that would reduce the risk of the city getting sued.

The City Council was unable to reach a consensus on the language changes within the ordinance during its regular meeting Sept. 26.

City Attorney Glenn Sabine suggested that no motion should be made since so many recommendations for changes were made and a final draft would need to be cohesive. “It will come back in ordinance form for first reading at a later time,” Sabine said.

The council quibbled over language that would have banned the depiction of all political figures.

“Suitable for all ages, no politics and no religion,” said Mayor Jerome Stocks at one point in the meeting, referring to possible restrictions on banners.

In the end, the council agreed the banner ordinance would restrict depictions of living political figures within San Diego County. It also agreed to add “suitable for all ages.”

The timing couldn’t be worse for organizers of the annual Arts Alive banner program, as they are scheduled to apply for a city permit this month in order to comply with a timeline that would allow artists enough time to paint the banners for the unveiling ceremony the first weekend in February.

“This really put a hitch in our plans,” said Danny Salzhandler of the 101 Artists’ Colony. Salzhandler served on the banner sub committee and said whatever the council decides the group will comply with the new rules. “I just don’t want to squeeze the artists’ time that they have to finish the banners,” he said.

The city suspended its banner permit process for the light poles in mid-April after facing threats of legal action from several parties, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Those threats came after the city blocked the display of banners depicting the image of former Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan. The councilwoman, who died in September after a five-year battle with cancer, was a strong supporter of the banner program.

“The problematic language in the original ordinance has been retained in the proposed new ordinance: ‘Banners over public rights-of-way shall be authorized by a City permit pursuant to this section and subject to the standards established by the City and approved by the City Manager or designee,’” Livia Borak, an attorney with the Coast Law Group and a local resident said in a statement after the meeting.

“This potentially gives the City Manager unfettered discretion to decide what is acceptable; possibly on the spot,” she said. “The new language regarding public officials is a product of this broad discretion being applied last year.”

Controversy over the banners arose from the image of Houlihan on the backs of the artworks.

In letters to the Council from the Coast Law Group and the ACLU, attorneys argued that the decision amounted to “viewpoint” decision-making and is a violation of the first amendment.

“If the City actually wants to fix the ordinance, the Council needs to deal with the aforementioned language,” Borak said. “The rest is just politics.”



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