Still stinging from the national attention it got from its attempt to have residents take down God Bless America signs, the city commission launched a resolution to fix the code and the mayor wants people to know to call them when they think there’s a problem and not those he says don’t care about their town.
“This whole matter of the sign business reflected badly on this community,” Mayor James F. Clements said. “People who live in Bartow probably got calls from others around the country asking what is going on over there. I want to thank Commissioner A.J. Jackson for the letter he wrote (to the newspaper) asking people to call us before calling some TV station because they’re only looking for dirt to broadcast.”
Clements was referring to the city’s code enforcement board to have what it deemed holiday signs taken down that have been in people’s yards since the July 4 holiday. The signs, which said God Bless America and had a depiction of a cross, violated the code ordinance because the holiday was three months in the past.
However, some felt they were told to take down the sign because of the content.
A few contacted Tampa’s Fox News channel which did a story reflecting that. That caused the national Fox cable channel to do stories depicting the same thing. A city commission meeting two weeks ago drew a packed room because of the stories. About 12 to 15 people objected to the city telling them to take down the signs because of the content. City officials said the content was irrelevant since it was simply a matter of enforcing the current city code.
However because of the uprising, city officials noticed some vagueness in the sign ordinance and as a result, it is in the process of amending the ordinance. That is what was behind the start of the resolution the city commission voted 4-0 to start working on Monday. Commissioner Pat Huff was absent from the meeting and did not vote.
The resolution relates to sign regulations that are expected to be discussed over the next six months.
“The purpose of this is to put the public on notice that the city is going to study the sign code and there is a time period of 180 days,” City Attorney Sean Parker said. He said there could be an extension if necessary. He said this also allows the public to know there will be time for them to comment a number of times on the proposed changes.
City Manager George Long said 180 days may not be necessary but with the upcoming winter holidays and the fact that the Code Enforcement Board meets once a month, that time frame is used in case it is needed.
“We’re focusing on one line under the prohibition under temporary signs on private property,” Long said.
Because of a contradiction in the code there is some question as to what a temporary sign on private property is as opposed to those on commercial properties.
He said because this is “rather narrowly drawn,” he thinks 180 days could be more time than what is necessary, “but there are other issues in the sign code and that’s why we have 180 days.”
“We have the holidays coming up and we have to deal with the code board and there may be other people who want to speak,” Long added.
He said the idea of temporary signs and private property may go away in the new code but the phrase will likely stay intact for other kinds of signs.
“There may be specific types of temporary signs. Signs on public property may continue to stay in force,” he said.
Long said he believes this process will make for a better, more understandable sign ordinance.
“I think we’ll end up with a good product in the end,” Long said.
While this review of the code stemmed from the God Bless America signs, and the city ruled two weeks ago the signs can stay in place until the code is updated, bitter feelings remain.
“I had a conversation with John Cook at Channel 13 and he apologized with the way they presented Bartow,” Clements said, indicating he received hundreds of mean emails. “Hopefully nothing similar will come up but if it does the city commissioners are reachable and we’ll have a cup of coffee with you.”
“And let me end that with this thought,” added Commissioner Leo Longworth. “We love God, too.”