Posted by Steve Lettau on Dec 29, 2021

Proposed solution to Mequon sign code dilemma not sitting well with some aldermen

By Lisa Curtis - Special to the News Graphic

MEQUON — The city of Mequon’s ongoing scrutiny into whether it can restrict the public from putting signs on cityowned properties has yielded one proposed solution that is causing much angst among aldermen, and will likely lead to many more difficult decisions going forward.

Based on a review from a private attorney hired by the city to provide guidance on the issue, City Attorney Brian Sajdak, Mequon Mayor John Wirth and city staff worked to create a proposed ordinance. Included in the language, and of particular interest by Common Council members, is a “free zone” for political and other signs on the corner of Cedarburg and Mequon roads, just north of the city’s prized gateway structure.

By one city official’s estimate, there could be as many as 50 signs in the area during an election season.

“I just am very uncomfortable with the location of it,” said Alderwoman Kathleen Schneider, adding that it breaks her heart. “Given the potential size (of the signs), it’s a concern to me that it would really destroy something we worked really hard to build.”

The city’s ordinance banning political signs on public properties had been in place for years, but was challenged last summer in the run up to the Nov. 2 Mequon-Thiensville School Board recall election. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, acting on behalf of the recall group, sent a letter to Mequon city officials threatening legal action if the city attempted to enforce the ordinance, which they said violated citizens’ First Amendment rights.

A further review of court rulings on the issues, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, made it clear that the city’s sign regulations may have some constitutional “infirmities,” according to a report by Sajdak to the council.

The city suspended its ordinance and later hired attorney William Cole to review the code and identify areas where it conflicts with constitutional requirements as established by the relevant court decisions.

Sajdak shared Cole’s review with the Common Council Dec. 14. One day earlier, he also presented it to the Planning Commission, which voted 6-2 to recommend it for approval to the Common Council. Planning Commissioners Rebecca Scheefer and James Schaefer voted against it.

The Common Council only discussed the review this month and will take it up again in January, possibly for a vote.

Based on Cole’s review, Sajdak and the team crafted an ordinance that generally creates three specific regulations:

■ It generally prohibits all signs on public property and within the public right-of-way, 
with certain limited exceptions.

■ It creates a “street reserved area,” which prohibits signs within 15 feet of the edge of a roadway, with certain exceptions, and generally makes the setback for signs more consistent for both public and private properties.

Within the area, there are only a certain number of signs that are permitted, Sajdak told the council. Those include traffic and warning signs, entrance ways to the city, construction signs, historical designations or any sign required by state or federal law.

■ It creates the “free area” defined as the area along Cedarburg Road, with the southern edge 2 two feet north of the Gateway Monument, extending north 50 feet and extending east 25 feet.

That corner also includes the city’s electronic message board, which also comes into play as the city cannot give itself broader permission to use city property than it would the area can be as big as the city’s billboard, whose face is 7 feet tall.

Some aldermen wondered why there is not a free area by the library, where the city also has an electronic billboard. Sajdak said that is still being addressed.
Alderman Rob Strzelczyk prefaced his comments by saying he supports free speech, but said he struggles with the fact that largely any signs could be installed on city property.

“If people have an objection to anything that’s going on within the city or the community and they choose to picket as is their right to free speech, and carry their signs along with them, that’s the appropriate way to handle signage from the public on public property,” he said, adding that they can put up signs on their own private property.

He said that just because they have a message board that communicates community information, the city would on occasion have a “smorgasbord of things that are either going to be very strongly opinionated or a very strong view.”

“I’m wavering between all or nothing. I’m liking the nothing more than the all,” Strzelczyk said, wondering how they can be reasonable but constitutional.

Wirth said he agrees with Strzelczyk from a policy perspective, but doesn’t think it’s an all-or-nothing issue. Wirth pointed to the fact that, on that particular day, the city’s electronic billboard was advertising the vaccine clinics at City Hall. He said those who don’t agree with vaccines, have an equal right to say people shouldn’t get vaccinated.

“And the court has essentially said, look, if you’re going to use public property to give the city message, then you have to give other people the ability to give their message,” Wirth said, adding that the city has been restrained in using the community message board.

Strzelczyk wondered what happens if the city doesn’t own the property — for example, if it leased it to the Rotary Club, which donated significant funding to the gateway structure.

Wirth replied that it’s not about “who owns the underlying dirt,” but giving equal access to the city’s spot.

Alderman Brian Parrish said he feels the same way about the corner and that it would be heartbreaking to see 50 political signs surrounding the corner, but cautioned his colleagues not to overreact.

He said it could get exhausting for people who put up their signs to take them down every night and come back and put them up every morning.

“I think we should approve it as essentially recommended. I think we need to get through the election cycle,” Parrish said. “I think we need to see how this goes.”

A proposal to the Mequon Common Council would allow the public equal access to putting up signs next to the city’s electronic message board.