At Thursday’s Mt. Juliet Planning Commission meeting, the commission approved the clarification of its sign ordinance, in particular regarding the number of signs a resident can put in their yard 60 day prior to an election.
The ordinance now states any resident can have 10 political signs in their yard 60 days prior to an election.
“You may have read, heard or seen that there are some issues relating to our current temporary sign ordinance that was primarily based on a misunderstanding by some of our candidates,” said Mt. Juliet city attorney Gino Marchetti.
In September, District 57 challenger Trisha Farmer alleged sometime around Aug. 25, city officials confiscated signs from properties of those endorsing her, citing the signs were displayed earlier than the 60 days prior to the Nov. 8 election.
“Rather than continue litigation, which would have been costly and time consuming to all, we met and agreed to clarify a couple of minor issues in the ordinance was preferable to continue with litigation, and it was amended.”
Marchetti said the confusion was around one phrase.
“In all honesty, there was one phrase in there that was limiting two signs per candidate of the 10 that you could have 60 days prior to an election that should have not have been in there,” he said. “That was the biggest change, and it was removed.
Commissioner Bobby Franklin said the commission looked at the issue in 2002, and he had spent thousand of dollars in legal fees. Attorneys told him at the time the city could not legislate First Amendment rights on private property. Franklin said in 2002, the city did not enforce the ordinance around political signs on private property.
“A lot has happened since 2002,” said Franklin. “Who knows what the state legislature will do while you’re not looking, so there could very well be something that I am not aware of that has happened since ’02. There could very well be something that I am not aware of.”
Franklin made a motion early in the meeting to make political signs exempt from the city’s ordinance regulating temporary signs, in effect lifting any regulation of political signs on private property all together.
“I guess my pause is not to re-approve it or approve it or amend it and let it go and still be unconstitutional,” Franklin said. “I would like to amend it … and basically just say political signs on private property [are exempt].
Commissioner Ted Floyd seconded the motion, saying he was told the ordinance was unconstitutional.
“I think I got at least three opinions from city attorneys saying that it would never be advisable to enter private property and take a political sign.” Floyd said. “Why is the magic number 10 if I want to put 12 signs in my yard? I would certainly hate anyone entering my property to take signs out of my yard because I had 12 or 11 instead of 10.”
Franklin said he had a problem with “where it dies over the instance of too much free speech.”
“So if somebody wanted to put up a political up on their lawn 62 days [prior to the election], are we saying that they can’t have that much free speech?” Franklin asked.
Marchetti said residents can put up two signs of any kind “year around.”
“Cities can regulate signage, political signs, non-commercial signs, any type of signs,” Marchetti said. “You are allowed to control aesthetics and safety. If you want 200 political signs in every yard, that is unreasonable in my mind. There are reasonable limits.”
Marchetti said the issue was resolved at the Supreme Court last June when the Court litigated the Reed v. Town of Gilbert case, which clarified when municipalities may impose restrictions on signage.
“We met with those attorneys about four, five or six months ago relative to this issue, and you can have reasonable limitations on any type of sign. There are reasonable limitations even of First Amendment speech,” Marchetti said
Marchetti said violations would be handled the way any code violation is handled.
“They would be sent a notice or a fine, and they would have a hearing, the whole nine yards, No one is going to pull any signs out of anyone’s yard,” Marchetti said. “This is just an amendment to be an amendment. This is the exact wording from the agreed order that resolved the litigation.”
Franklin then made a motion to defer to take a look at the Reed case.
“I took an oath of office, and I can tell you, this has been wrong for a long time,” Franklin said. “It has nothing to do with any recently elected official. If we are going to do it, I just want to make sure it’s right.”
Commissioner Art Giles said considering that it was election time, the city needed something that was enforceable.
“I think we have got to keep something in place,” said Giles
By the end of discussion, the commission passed amending the ordinance, in effect, allowing 10 political signs per yard 60 days prior to an election.
By Colleen Creamer
Special to Mt. Juliet News