Thursday, October 29th, 2009 at 9:00am

Rights of Leesburg Citizens and Businesses Trampled at Sign Workshop

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Rights of Leesburg Citizens and Businesses Trampled at Sign Workshop
Part 1
October 29, 2009 

“The New Sign of the Times in Leesburg”

     An unidentified business owner left the City of Leesburg Commission sign ordinance workshop on Monday saying, “Why do I always feel like I need to wear a railroad hat at these meetings?”  On Monday night, the Leesburg City Commission held a public workshop on proposed changes in the upcoming sign ordinance, but they failed to do one thing – allow the public to participate.

After Bill Wiley, Leesburg’s Community Development Director, made his 30-minute-plus presentation on the 20 proposed change options to the sign ordinance, Mayor Lewis Puckett told the overflowing crowd that only three people from each side of the issue would be allowed to speak for three minutes each.  Mayor Puckett then turned the meeting over to City Manager, Jay Evans, who issued rules for the discussion.  Evans said he wanted to “frame the public input” on just the issues that were being discussed during this workshop, and he did not want to rehash discussions from February’s public workshop. In an effort to further suppress public input, he insisted that comments be original and not redundant.

So, let’s put everything in perspective.  For weeks, the City of Leesburg advertised this meeting via all types of media outlets and also sent out thousands of emails encouraging the public and business people to attend under the guise of a real workshop.  The meeting was held in the City Commission Chambers, where there was standing room only.  Many people left because the City did not make arrangements for the crowd they invited.  Next, Lewis Puckett, Mayor of Leesburg, told the group that only three from each side would be allowed to speak for three minutes each.  This was after the City’s Community Development Director took over 30 minutes to make his presentation.  The City Manager told potential speakers what to say, how to say it, and what not to not say.  In other words, to stop dissent, intimidation was used by government officials to stop a debate they did not want to hear.

The opposition to the sign ordinance was overwhelming, but the City fixed the debate to force equality.  Commissioner Sanna Henderson made most of the motions to accept the various proposed changes, which were usually followed by a second from her comrade Commissioner David Knowles.  The proposed changes and accompanying comments trample the Constitutional rights of many in the City of Leesburg.  It appears Commissioners Knowles and Henderson have no problem imposing the regulations of an over zealous government.

Below are the bullet points from the meeting, which are important to every freedom loving citizen and business person in Leesburg:

  • Bill Wiley showed two pictures of a gas station and stated how much better a monument sign looks than a post sign.  He failed to discuss which one was more effective and best for business.
  • The City of Leesburg proposes to take CRA money from the Highway 27/441 corridor area (taxpayers’ money) to offer businesses in just that area financial incentive, up to 60%, for replacing their signs – instead of using the money for re-development like it was intended for.
  • All other areas of the City of Leesburg would be on their own because their CRA money is limited to real projects.  So, businesses on the wrong part of town will be discriminated against those that are located on the Highway 27/441 corridor.
  • The LED sign proposal was changed to 60%, after they found out the Methodist Church and Baptist Church signs were not in compliance.  Later, it was noted that even with this language the signs were not in compliance.
  • The staff recommended that the ordinance be phased in within a 10 year period; however, it was lowered to six years for the worst excuse ever uttered in any government meeting – Commissioner Henderson, who is well in her years, wanted to change it to six years so she would see it in her lifetime.  The City of Leesburg is now making decisions based on the life expectancy of one of its Commissioners and not the general welfare of the public.
  • Under the proposed ordinance, with the permission of the City of Leesburg, businesses will be allowed to have 4 yearly temporary promotional displays for up to 5 days each with balloons, pennants, and flags no bigger than 18 inches, banners not more than 48 square feet (4’x12’), and no inflatable signs.  Businesses would have to go online and obtain a permit from the City of Leesburg, which would be at no charge and automatic at first.  The government is going to tell businesses when and how they can promote their business.  By the way, who believes these permits will remain automatic and free?
  • The promotion sign rules would not apply to the City of Leesburg, Leesburg Partnership, or other non-profit entities.  In the meeting, Evans acknowledged that special banners and other signage were needed to promote the City’s events.  In other words, government promotions trying to attract participants are more important than a tax-paying business trying to attract customers.
  • During the limited public comment period, Wayne Shigley said this ordinance was robbing businesses of their freedoms and individuality.  Cecil Shumaker said the City needs to take care of its own before dictating to others.  Joe Codispoti of AOK Television expressed grave concern about the safety issues of the new monument signs. Henry Couture said the City of Leesburg needs to enforce what they have instead of creating more.
  • Joe Shipes, Executive Vice President of the Leesburg Partnership, was basically the only person to voice support for the changes.  He said the sign ordinance was needed to clean up the corridor so Leesburg could compete with the proposed one million square feet of new retail scheduled for Sumter County.  What?  The reason Sumter County is prospering is because of their pro-business environment versus that of Lake County and Leesburg.  It is laughable to think different signs will put business in Leesburg.
  • The final speaker was Rick Ranize of Pat’s Sales. Rick was first denied the opportunity to speak in opposition because three others had spoken, but he was subsequently allowed to speak after no one else came forward to speak in favor of the changes.  He explained his business was down 70% and now is not the time to impose more regulations on businesses.  He also reminded the crowd that a sign would be limited to 60 square feet or 6’x10’.
  • Ranize further said it was not fair to make taxpayers pay costs for sign replacement for private businesses and pointed out that Leesburg had over 1,300 signs and banners up right now that do not comply with the new ordinance.
  • Ranize believed after the February meeting that the City of Leesburg would organize a committee of business people and others to hammer out a fair proposal, but that did not happen.
  • In an exchange with City Manager, Jay Evans, Ranize said he was personally offended when Evans called parts of Leesburg “visual blithe” and told the City Manager he did not have to make that reference.
  • Jay Evans said the sign ordinance does not address large campus areas like Lake-Sumter Community College and the Lake Square Mall, and indicated special exceptions would have to be developed.

The meeting on Monday evening could have easily been held in any like size town in the old Soviet Union because the rights of citizens were not respected.  Citizens for Better Government, L.L.C. would like to propose two options for this sign ordinance, instead of 20 options.  Option No. 1 – scrap the entire ordinance until the time in which the economic conditions have changed to allow such a discussion.  Option No. 2 – assemble an independent business review with one city staff member to write an ordinance that makes sense.

If you would like to comment on this newsletter, visit our website at www.lakecountygov.info.  More importantly, we ask you to email the Leesburg City Commission and City Manager, Jay Evans, and let them know you expect free, public debate of the issues regardless of the outcome or time.  Next, send this email to all Leesburg business people to let them know what is about to happen to them and to encourage them to get involved when this ordinance comes up for vote.  No matter what side of the issue you are on, everyone should demand that the rights we hold as Americans be protected.  In Part 2 of next week’s newsletter, we will examine the actual changes and the implications on businesses.

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