Council OKs ordinance removing restraints on exhibiting political signs
By Samantha Jones
Eureka Springs residents can now display political signs for as long as they like.
On Monday night, the Eureka Springs City Council heard from Mayor Butch Berry about an ordinance regarding political signs. Berry said it was recently brought to his attention that the city’s sign ordinance prohibits the exhibition of political signs more than 30 days before the election.
“It’s also been brought to my attention that this is a violation of … what the federal court has discussed,” Berry said. “I thought it was important to go ahead and get this taken care of by ordinance.”
Council member Mickey Schneider expressed opposition to that idea.
“I thought the city had the individual right to make a decision in regards to cluttering up their city, shall we say,” Schneider said. “That’s why we originally voted to not allow signs any longer than 30 days. We did not want political signs cluttering up our city and making it look trashy.”
Considering “this year’s situation,” Schneider said, she would support passing a resolution allowing signs to be displayed for 60 days before the election.
“And then we’ll look into it again … but since when do federal courts have the right to tell us what our town is going to look like?” Schneider asked.
“For a long time,” Berry replied.
“I don’t think they have that right,” Schneider said.
Council member Harry Meyer said it’s a free speech issue.
“It’s not a free speech issue,” Schneider said.
“That’s what the Supreme Court says,” Meyer said.
“Well, then Eureka is the one to take them to court and win like we do against the state all the time,” Schneider said.
“Just because we did it doesn’t mean it’s right,” Berry said.
“We don’t want our city looking ugly and trashy and they’re saying, ‘Tough,’ ” Schneider said.
“Not that I disagree with you, but the sign lobbyists have won,” Berry said.
Council member Melissa Greene said it’s a constitutional right to display political signs and city attorney Tim Weaver clarified that there are two types of speech: commercial speech and political speech. The city can put limitations on how things are sold, Weaver said, but cannot infringe upon free speech of political ideas.
“Saying, ‘Vote for John Smith’ is political speech or saying, ‘Vote against the use of firearms’ is political speech and it’s protected according to the Constitution by the right to openly express oneself,” Weaver said.
Weaver said the issue is out of the city’s hands.
“Now the Supreme Court is saying we cannot put limitations on political speech,” Weaver said. “We can put limitations on commercial speech. If they want to advertise their rummage sale for more than three days, our ordinance that says you get three days trumps that, but if they want to say, ‘Vote for kangaroos to be elected mayor’ … they have the right to put that up and leave it for more than 30 days.”
“So what you’re saying is not only can we not prohibit how early they put them out — we can’t make them take it down?” Schneider asked.
“They can make the argument that potentially they’re running again,” Weaver said.
“Someone can have dumb signs up for a year after the election. Is that what you are saying?” Schneider asked.
“That’s the interpretation I got from the municipal league and speaking with some constitutional lawyers, yes,” Weaver said.
City clerk Ann Armstrong said the property owner is required to remove signs, not the person who posted the sign.
“The property owner is probably not going to want their lawn to look like a trash heap,” Armstrong said.
The council approved an ordinance removing restraints on the exhibition of political signs on a first reading, then on second and third readings by title only. The council then approved the emergency clause. Everyone voted in favor of the ordinance and the emergency clause except Schneider.
In other business, the council considered proposed changes to the bed and breakfast definitions in city code. Council member Susan Harman said she was concerned about two sections of the proposed changes and former planning commissioner Ann Tandy-Sallee said those items were not added by the commission. Commission chairwoman LauraJo Smole agreed, saying city preservation officer Glenna Booth added definitions regarding the 180-day rule and the requirements of the owner living onsite.
“We gave it to Glenna to draft and submit to you all and that’s something that was submitted afterward,” Smole said.
Council member Bob Thomas said that meant the council was looking at something that was never approved by the commission and asked the commission to make a decision on the items.
“I know you’ve discussed it, but discussing it doesn’t mean you’ve voted on it,” Thomas said. “If you want to take the second page off, that’s fine. Then vote to approve the first page and bring it back to council.”
The council voted unanimously to defer the issue back to the planning commission.
Earlier in the meeting, Smole spoke during public comments about the police department. She referred to a news report from April that detailed “issues with [building inspector Bobby Ray] regarding certain policies,” then mentioned a news report from Sept. 10 about “another police department employee who was deemed accountable for some extremely recent actions.”
Smole was referring to a report that Eureka Springs police officer Austin Young resigned from the department after being stripped of his law enforcement certification. Austin Young, who is the son of Eureka Springs police chief Brian Young, was fired from the Green Forest Police Department in July 2019 after a fully automatic M-16 rifle and a police radio were stolen from his personal vehicle in Holiday Island. Austin Young was hired on a part-time, temporary basis by ESPD three days after he was fired in Green Forest and was made a full-time officer on Nov. 25.
“Nepotism is not addressed in the city employee handbook. Personally, I feel that to hire a child to work directly under a parent is 99 percent a poor decision and I think there should be a policy drafted and adopted regarding cases of nepotism in city employment,” Smole said. “Can the citizens of Eureka Springs trust the judgment of a police chief who overlooks these kinds of infractions?”
Smole suggested that the council hold a special meeting to address the issue as soon as possible.
“Mr. Young may still face the results of the county investigation and other investigations. I query to the mayor in particular … who are you willing to protect: the citizens or the police chief?” Smole said. “Do code enforcement employees … have a trump card that allows them to be exempt from the standards other employees follow?”
Meyer touched on the issue during council comments, saying he asked for the council to approve new hires at the police department earlier this year.
“I was told that I was trying to micromanage the police department and the police chief and mayor now had exclusive control over hiring,” Meyer said. “After recent events, I hope the council sees why there is a need for this type of oversight.”
Mayer said the council should form a committee to create an ordinance addressing several issues.
“It’s time to reinstate a hiring policy that addresses nepotism, one that requires a thorough background check of new officers and a policy … that denies employment to anyone that is under investigation for a crime or has been convicted of a crime,” Meyer said.
During her comments, Schneider addressed Meyer.
“I’d like to remind Mr. Meyer because he has a personal problem with the police department, that doesn’t mean we should come down on them,” Schneider said. “People are human. We don’t know squat about police enforcement, needs, backgrounds, anything else — we do not need to be getting our fingers in every pie.”
The council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 28, at The Auditorium.