Split council rejects more sign law talks

Feather and a-frame signs line the sidewalk in front of businesses on First Street in this file photo. A city ordinance passed in March 2014 initially banned A-frame signs citywide—a restriction reversed this year. New car dealerships are exempt from the

GILROY—On a split vote, the Gilroy City Council Monday handed a defeat to business leaders seeking to ease restrictions of advertising banners.
The 4-3 vote, led by Mayor Don Gage, denied a request from Gilroy Chamber of Commerce President Mark Turner to revisit a controversial sign ordinance that has faced public opposition since enacted in March 2014.
Turner asked that the matter be put on an upcoming agenda and that the chamber and city staff be allowed to work together on revising time limits on the use of banners.
Gage said the matter had already been studied and he opposed bringing the topic back up for discussion. Council Members Terri Aulman, Peter Leroe-Muñoz and Perry Woodward agreed.
Councilman Roland Velasco initiated the vote after he asked the council to put it on a future agenda and direct staff to work with the chamber on the language—a motion supported by Council Members Dion Bracco and Cat Tucker.
“There was a task force for three years and then we met with them (business owners and the chamber) and did a lot of work. It’s not the staff that need to bring something forward,” Gage said. “I for one see what’s happening in the downtown area and I feel those banners…we used to have a lot of difficulty with them. At this time I’m not willing to bring that back.”
A similar request was granted by the council in November 2014 after local business owners explained the ordinance, including a ban on A-frame signs and other advertising, was leading to “unintended consequences” and hindering their ability to make money for themselves and the city’s tax base.
While a city task force met for two years to discuss what the sign ordinance should entail, the result of their labor was different from what the city council initially approved in 2014.
That one called for an outright ban on A-frames and the use of costumed character advertising. Both stands and other strict limitations on forms of advertising have since been reversed in the face of criticism from the community.
Turner said the sign ordinance creates hardship for businesses, in some cases leading to a 15 percent drop in potential sales. He said he believes the council’s goal of “cleaning up the city” can still be achieved even with a revision on the time frame for banner advertising, but he’s disappointed in the council majority’s action.
As the law stands now, businesses can use one banner in a 45-day period, and then must wait 90 days before another banner can be flown.
“The failure to allow a discussion to occur with city staff simply because the sign ordinance was looked at by a task force three years ago makes no sense,” Turner told the Dispatch.
“When presented with accurate information regarding the Welcome Center’s positive impact on city sales tax revenue, the mayor, who initially led the effort to cut funding, changed his mind and recommended full funding. As a result, the three council members who initially agreed with him also changed their minds. We’re looking for that same leadership with respect to banners,” he said.
“The way I see it, the sign ordinance is a work in progress,” added Velasco. “I feel like its still not right and we need to work with the chamber in order to come up with something right. It’s incumbent on staff to work with the chamber and figure out what their needs are and bring it back to us (the council).”
Others on the council disagreed, telling this newspaper after the meeting that city staff and the council have spent enough time and money on the ordinance.
Leroe-Muñoz called the existing regulations on banners “fair,” and said the sign ordinance is the result of more than a year of collaboration with business owners.
“A lot of time and effort has already gone into that (the ordinance),” he said. “We want to avoid a situation where people are just leaving temporary banners out permanently. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that, here and in other cities…that’s not the image we want to portray.”
Aulman echoed Gage’s comments that the ordinance has been in revision for approximately three years and said, “it’s been out there for a very long time. We have a lot of (other) work to do and I don’t know if this is an appropriate time for staff to step aside and work on this,” she added. “I think we can do that at a more appropriate time.”
Councilman Bracco, former chair of the Sign Ordinance Review Task Force, said the fruits of that volunteer-board’s labor were completely different from what the council ended up supporting with its first version of the law, the one that banned A-frame signs against the task force’s recommendation.
“When we did that (task force), the consensus was that we didn’t really care about banners as long as they were clean, well-maintained and not used as a permanent sign. When it came to the council, a lot of stuff the task force recommended got changed,” Bracco said, adding he was surprised the council voted against revisiting the ordinance. “
“I really thought it would come back to the council like it did in the past,” he added.
Woodward, who voted against the chamber request, said he admits the ordinance disproportionately impacts a select few retailers, many who depend on franchise agreements for advertising, and has led to between five and 10 retailers becoming “disgruntled.”
But the councilman said he met with Turner and a few business owners to see if they could hammer out the language and revise it to meet their needs. The efforts, he said, were unsuccessful.
“I wish we could be more precise but it doesn’t seem to be workable. We tried to craft the language in a way that lessens the impact on them without reopening the whole thing again but we failed to come up with a solution,” he said, noting that even if the language was hammered out, it didn’t appear likely to pass. “You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
For the business leader and the other council members, the action by the council majority seems to have quashed hopes of any formal discussion in the near future, or in time for summer sales.
“The 90-day period in between each event just doesn’t work in the summer. You can have something up for Memorial Day but you can’t do anything for Fourth of July,” Councilwoman Tucker said, after hearing about the impact of the law from a First Street business owner.
Acknowledging the difficulty of crafting legislation that takes into consideration all segments of the community, Mayor Gage said it’s impossible to “take into account every person.
“There’s no way you can please everyone,” Gage previously told the Dispatch. “My only goal was to make the community nicer. Tattered signs turn people away.”
Despite the Monday setback, Turner remains hopeful.
“There’s no doubt a compromise can be reached between city staff and the business community. However, a compromise cannot be reached without a discussion occurring. We will continue to bring this forward. We have to believe these (four) council members will gain a better understanding of what small businesses need to succeed.”
Bracco added, “I think it’s just good practice for government, when they make a new rule, that they go back later and see how it’s working. A lot of times we find out after (a law) is enacted there are outcomes and impacts we really didn’t understand. You see government do that so often—say ‘we did it, we’re done and we’re moving forward no matter if it’s in the wrong direction.’ I don’t agree with that.”

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