September 21, 2011
City sign law up for another redo
Civil Liberties Union says latest revisions filled with jargon, limit free speech
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
A variety of signs are posted Tuesday afternoon on the front lawn of house 42 Homer Ave. Current city law restricts lawn signs to one per property. The city attorney has proposed revisions but the Central New York Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has called for further changes.
For the second time in two weeks, civil liberties activist Barrie Gewanter asked city attorney Patrick Perfetti and the Common Council to take a closer look at the city’s controversial sign law.
Gewanter said the changes Perfetti made to the law are not enough.
The original law says residents can only have one political sign on their property without a permit, and limits the size and length of time people can display them before elections.
“The amendments proposed do not sufficiently address our concerns, and the way that these changes have been written actually creates more confusion than clarity,” said Gewanter, director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Perfetti said he would work with the council to craft another draft of the sign law. He hoped to get more specific direction from the council as to what they wanted to change in the law.
“I’m open to input and working toward an effort to strike a balance,” Perfetti said. “This is not an easy area of the law to deal with and it’s going to require some careful focus.”
After the Sept. 6 council meeting, Perfetti rewrote parts of the city’s sign law, eliminating restrictions on the number of signs people can post during election season and the need for a permit.
At that meeting, the aldermen told Perfetti to essentially suspend enforcing the sign law.
Gewanter said the city needs to make other changes to the law, which was originally enacted in 2003. She says limiting the campaign signs to 45 days before an election and the size of campaign signs to 3-square-feet are both unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.
She also said the law, which provides examples of 14 different types of signs that are legal without a zoning permit or fee, is too wordy and riddled by jargon.
Gewanter said the law should be rewritten “so that you don’t need an attorney to explain what it means.”
Perfetti said there would be another draft for review by the next Common Council meeting on Oct. 4 and he wanted to get input from the council before he makes additional changes.
Local activists and candidates running for political office have scolded the city for the 2003 law, saying it disregards residents’ basic free-speech rights.
Aldermen said they wanted to work with Perfetti to change the law.
“Personally, I’d like to see it done correctly, so we don’t have to keep going back to it,” Alderman Carlos Ferrer (D-6th ward) said during the meeting.
Alderman Dan Quail (R- 5th ward) said the original intent of the law was not to limit free speech but to limit the size of signs.
“We should revisit it and make sure it’s clear,” Quail said after the meeting. “We should not be restricting free speech.”
Gewanter said the timing of the sign problems was also unfortunate and that she wanted the city to fix the problem sooner rather than later. She said the city is setting the wrong message with its sign law.
“What kind of message does this delay send to the residents of Cortland?” Gewanter said during the meeting. “What civics lesson does it convey to children in your schools?”
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