Proposal could ban some sign carriers

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Businesses could be banned from using people hired to hold signs near curbsides to draw potential customers if a new ordinance is passed by the Cape Girardeau City Council.

On Monday, the board unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinance, which amends Section 15-16 of the city code, prohibiting "selling or soliciting on public streets, rights-of-way, intersections, medians or sidewalks."

Mayor Jay Knudtson told members of the public present at the meeting the ordinance would keep the city from looking "like a flea market community."

Then he turned his attention to members of Boy Scout Troop 21 from St. Andrew Lutheran Church, tell them if they wanted to have a car wash, it was OK for them to hold up signs on private property, but not on city property.

Cape Girardeau city manager Douglas K. Leslie said the proposed ordinance applies only to commercial businesses using this method to advertise on public property. Other entities such as not-for-profit organizations still will be granted an exemption from the ordinance.

"We have had recent complaints from the citizens that people advertising a business are standing in roadways or medians," Leslie said. "This is from a traffic safety standpoint. Any activity is dangerous and can be distracting for motorists as well as the advertiser."

Knudtson said he has received six complaints personally. Cpl. Jason Selzer, spokesman for the Cape Girardeau Police Department, said his department did not have a record of complaints from citizens.

Leslie explained that the council learned of the situation and discussed it at a mid-May retreat at the Osage Community Centre in Cape Girardeau.

Council members will vote on the second and third readings of the ordinance when they meet June 16.

Knudtson said in addition to protecting residents' safety, the purpose of the ordinance is to preserve the image of the city. Two years ago, the city passed an ordinance requiring any commercial banner be securely attached to an exterior wall or support structure of the building. He said the latest action represents the city council's continued commitment to cleaning up Cape Girardeau's image.

"Lately, our town has been littered with individuals who are used by businesses to do their advertising," said Knudtson. "That looks terribly unprofessional and it's not what we want in a beautiful city like ours. This language is being tightened because council members have also received numerous complaints from citizens. This is not just a 'witch hunt' being driven by this council; we are responding to the wishes of our citizens who take pride in their community."

John Mehner, Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce executive director, said he has not heard any complaints or concerns about the matter from area businesses. He said the chamber had no position on the issue.

Cape Girardeau lawyer J.P. Clubb said he is concerned the city council's actions may violate First Amendment rights. A former specialist for the state attorney general's office, Clubb said he is concerned the city may be favoring one group over another in this case.

"The First Amendment prohibits government from favoring one group or that group's message over another group's unless the government has a compelling interest," Clubb said. "The city will need compelling justification to discriminate against the commercial speech of Cape Girardeau's businesses."

However, Cape Girardeau is not the only city barring commercial people signs. The Columbia, Mo., City Council voted on April 6 to ban all billboards containing moving parts or electronic signs. Like Cape Girardeau city leaders, Columbia's council members cited motorists' safety as a primary reason for their amendment's passage.

bblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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