City toughens law targeting ‘sign blight’

Following a hard-fought political primary season that saw major streets lined with hundreds of campaign signs, the Wichita City Council has decided to allow a posse of trained volunteers to remove unauthorized signs from city rights of way.

The council on Tuesday voted 6-1 to toughen its sign ordinance, authorizing fines starting at $50 and rising to as much as $1,000 per sign for repeat violations.

In addition to political signs, the rules also would apply to temporary garage-sale and real estate signs placed on public property, utility poles or in the right of way between a city sidewalk and the street.

The city already bans temporary signs in the public right of way, but the Office of Central Inspection, tasked with enforcing the ban, complained that it is “inefficient, labor intensive, and achieves mixed results.”

“In an effort to address the negative impact of sign blight, OCI employees dedicate hours each week to removing signs illegally placed in the right of way,” according to an OCI staff report. “Despite OCI’s best efforts, sign blight remains a problem throughout the city.”

To change that, the council authorized its department of Neighborhood Services and OCI to recruit and train volunteers to police signs.

The volunteers would be authorized to remove signs that violate the ordinance and either dispose of them or turn them over to city officials for possible prosecution.

Also, the changes to the sign code would remove a requirement that the city identify the person who actually placed a sign on city property before levying a fine.

Under the new code, a person or business named on a sign would be presumed to be responsible for its placement and liable to be fined.

The council passed the changes 6-1, with council member Michael O’Donnell in opposition.

Council member Janet Miller said the signs are a “rapidly multiplying nuisance.”

O’Donnell said he was concerned that in a negative campaign, someone could relocate signs from a legal site to get a competing candidate fined for unauthorized signs.

He said the new ordinance is “way too extreme, frankly.”

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting were divided on the new rules.

Several residents told the council that they think the signs are a blight on the city and should be removed.

“It’s ugly,” said James Roseboro. “I would like this code enforced.”

Opponents said they think the new ordinance is too restrictive of free-speech rights and prevents people who can’t afford commercial advertising from getting out the message on their garage sales and lost pets.

“I look at commercial signs as clutter,” said Mike Wilson. “At least these signs can be removed and thrown in the trash.”

Craig Gabel, who ran for state House of Representatives in the recent Republican primary, said he thinks the new rules infringe on free-speech, property and due process rights.

“I think we should obey the current ordinance,” he said. “But if we empower people, average citizens, to go out there and pull these signs up, then we’ve empowered someone to go from being just an average citizen … to being a policeman, a judge, jury and then they get to go out and remove somebody’s private property.”

He said the council should keep the current ordinance as it is and “just get a little tougher with people.”

That drew a wry response from council member James Clendenin.

“You make a good point, we should probably get tougher on people that put signs illegally,” Clendenin said. “Is there anything we can do to empower you to go pick up the current signs that you have placed illegally in my neighborhood? Because I drove by five this morning on the way into work.”