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Council tackles debate over political signage
1/16/2013 11:30:17 AM

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor

There was plenty of campaigning at Tuesday night's Liberty Lake City Council meeting, although the discussion itself dealt more with the idea of placard placement than political platforms.

The debate centered around the only proposed amendment to the municipal development code from 2012, a recommendation by the planning commission to amend Section 10-3E-5 involving the use of political signs within city limits. In a 3-2 vote last year, the commission agreed to endorse a change to the code from 2011 that currently prohibits political signs from public property within the right-of-way or a public easement. A pair of planning commission members were absent from the meeting when the vote occurred.

The right-of-way adjustment was enforced during last year's election season - most noticeably in popular areas for candidate marketing such as the field bordering the eastbound off-ramp of I-90 into Liberty Lake - until a directive from City Hall halted the removal of signs.

On Tuesday, City Attorney Sean Boutz cited a legal precedent in the city of Tacoma in which the Washington Supreme Court found no compelling reason to restrict political signage in the public right-of-way when stacked against the First Amendment guarantee of political speech. Mayor Steve Peterson addressed the question when he returned to office last year, expressing concern that while certain advertisements for events like a Kiwanis breakfast or a neighborhood garage sale could be placed in the right-of-way, political signs were banned based on the amendment from 2011.

"I asked for the documentation that supports this," Peterson said. "You cannot ban political signs and allow all other signs."

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Council Member Dan Dunne, who was serving as chair of the planning commission when the amendment was approved by the City Council two years ago, said on Tuesday that "nothing significant has changed" since the code was altered, other than Peterson being installed as mayor. Dunne added that temporary signs for events and promotions "are handled very differently than political signs."

Mayor Pro Tem Odin Langford voiced his support for keeping the injunction in place, emphasizing that the city "is not prohibiting political signs, we're just prohibiting political signs in the public right-of-way."

Tuesday's agenda also included a public hearing on the proposed amendment with the two dissenting members of the planning commission - Bob Moore and Karl Patchin - stating their case for keeping the right-of-way restriction in place. Moore noted that a reversal of the standard could wreak aesthetic havoc in a number of public spaces, including the roundabout slated for the intersection of Harvard, Mission and westbound I-90.

"Can you imagine 100 political signs in the middle of a roundabout?" Moore said.

Stan Jochim, who was in the majority of the planning commission decision, countered with an argument that went back to Boutz's statements about political speech. Jochim added that while a gaggle of political advertisements "can be unsightly," the posting of signs is part of the process "of seeing who are potential leaders will be." 

A second reading on the amendment to the development code - along with an anticipated council vote - is scheduled for the Feb. 5 council meeting.

In other municipal news related to signage - this one of the gateway variety - landscape architect Mike Terrell appeared before council to provide an update on the ornamental portion of the roundabout scheduled for installment later this year. With a goal of "establishing a sense of place and identity for Liberty Lake," Terrell outlined plans for a city entrance sign similar to the stout brick monuments that stand on the south end of the Harvard Road Bridge.

The layout would also include a backdrop of evergreen trees, plants featuring perennial color, low ground cover that would not impair motorist visibility and space for an art feature at some point in the future.  The gateway sign would be illuminated with the underlying theme of the design signifying, in Terrell's words, "a sense of movement and motion."

"People will get the sense that they need to keep to the right and move around," Terrell said.

Terrell will next meet with city staff to review the final design proposal, go over plant selection and address maintenance requirements. The design must be presented to representatives from the Washington State Department of Transportation by Jan. 28.

Also on Tuesday, City Administrator Katy Allen gave an update on the Sprague Avenue Trail project discussed at last week's council meeting.  Allen said the timeline for the new trail would include a presentation of the design and survey to the Transportation Benefit District board in March with a community meeting to follow in April. If all goes as anticipated, the pathway would be constructed over June and July.

Finally, a reminder was issued that Liberty Lake City Hall and the municipal library will be closed on Monday as the nation observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day.