By Joel Hall
After calling a special meeting to change the City of Jonesboro's ordinance regarding the placement of political signs, the Jonesboro City Council voted unanimously to keep the ordinance the way it is.
On Friday morning, the council voted 6-0 not to alter the existing sign ordinance, which limits the size of political signs to no more than five square feet, and limits the number of signs to four signs per lot.
The current ordinance also says political signs can only be in place 45 days before, and one day after, an election.
The proposed ordinance, voted down by the council, would have removed size restrictions on signs, and would have extended the placement period to 90 days before, and 10 days after, an election.
Councilman Clarence Mann made a motion to vote down the proposed revisions. Councilman Billy Powell seconded the motion. The entire council voted to keep the existing regulations as they are.
Mann argued that there were flaws in the proposed ordinance. "There are some good points in here, but there are some bad points, too," he said. "We don't need signs out 90 days before an election. We don't need 10 days afterwards. If you put out so many signs that you can't pick them up in 24 hours, then you don't need to put them up."
Mann also warned that tampering with ordinances regarding political speech may make the city vulnerable to lawsuits. Several years earlier, according to Mann, Lee Moore, owner of the Cotton States Insurance Agency, sued and won the right to display large signs outside his insurance agency on Jonesboro Road reading, "Support Our Troops Or Leave," and "One Nation, Yes, Under God."
Today, the signs are still visible on Jonesboro Road.
"You might want to study this thing a little further, because if you remember, Mr. Moore one time had a suit against the city and his contention was that you were infringing on freedom of speech," Mann said. "A political sign could be considered that very same thing."
In discussion prior the vote, council members suggested that the proposed ordinance was the result of a sign dispute between councilmembers Powell and Rick Yonce.
"We had a complaint issued," Maddox said, referring to a complaint made by Powell. "One of the candidates has been wanting code enforcement officers to go around and measure signs, even before they were put out."
Powell argued that some signs Yonce was preparing to place around the city this weekend are larger than the current laws allow. "We basically have one councilman who wants to use signs that are bigger than what's legal," Powell said.
"That's my big sign ... 4 [feet] by 8 [feet]," Yonce said. "I've had three elections I've been in, and I've had these signs every election."
According to city officials, election signs larger than five square feet are permissible as long as the sign owner pays a $50 application fee and a permit fee based on the size of the sign.
In the meeting, however, Councilman Roger Grider said the dispute over signs amounted to "a bunch of whining. Basically we have one councilman that wants to be treated differently than we treat all the others in the elections," Grider said. "I know that there were some Sonny Perdue signs [in the last election] that were 4 [feet] by 8 [feet] that weren't enforced. I know that when I ran, I had some signs up that were bigger than that.
"These have never been enforced in any election before," he said. "Why are we going back and not doing things the way we have in all the other elections?"
Maddox said that all candidates will be treated fairly in the upcoming election and that the city's current sign ordinance will be "enforced as written ... across the board to all candidates."
"Every candidate will abide by the same rules," he said. Before the close of the meeting, Maddox suggested that Powell's complaint to code enforcement officers was done improperly, and that any further complaints to code enforcement would need to be done "in writing." No vote was taken on the matter.
"City employees work for city employees," Maddox said. "It's OK to talk to city employees, but its not OK to tell them what to do on their job. That's for their supervisor."
Powell said he was happy with the outcome of Friday's meeting. "If you've got the rules written down on the paper, then everybody should abide by them," he said. "If you did this [passed the proposed ordinance], you could have [had] billboard-sized units up for about three months. I feel like we did the right thing in restricting the signs."
Councilmembers Powell, Yonce, and Mann are incumbents running in the Nov. 3 election.