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Political decisions: The stock and trade of government officials

Political Decisions

The city board considered much routine business in its indecisive, four-hour meeting last week, but the sign ordinance and “speed bumps” were the memorable features.

Two citizens appeared before the board asking that speed bumps be installed in their neighborhoods to slow down illegal, high-speed traffic.  Both said reckless speeding is a threat to public safety, especially to that of children.

Voters elect public officials to make political decisions

Our readers will not be surprised to know that these concerned citizens were not given straight decisions on their requests. Rather, they received advice, not all of it consistent, from various aldermen regarding the necessity of petitions, signed by other residents in their neighborhoods, before the board would order speed bumps to slow up traffic.

During the speed bumps discussion, a question was directed to Brett Brooks, a civil engineer who does consulting work for the city. The core of the engineer’s response was, perhaps, the most succinct comment we heard in the entire meandering meeting:

“Speed bumps,” said Brooks, “are a political decision.”

That is true, and it is also true that decisions about which business signs are allowed in New Albany are also political decisions. As we have said ad nauseam, not only is the city’s 6,600 word sign ordinance tedious and confusing, but its enforcement is also inconsistent. We submit that the uneven enforcement of the sign ordinance is a classic example of the kind of legal abuse known in law as selective enforcement.

The best rule for a business wanting to erect a sign in New Albany might be simply: “Don’t tell. Don’t ask.” As we have said previously, numerous signs have been erected over the last 11 years that are not permitted by the ordinance. The common thread in most of those instances is that the business owners did not ask the city for its permission. They operated by what is often called “the rule of do.”

Many businesses simply put up signs without permission. We are not aware of a single instance in which the city has acted to punish the scofflaws or to order the illegal signs removed. In at least a few of these instances, city officials were not even aware of the illegal signs until they were called to their attention by unofficial sources. It is a case of the law being enforced only against those who are polite enough to try complying with it by asking permission.

Starting many years ago with Ronald Reagan, a key theme in government has been “deregulation,” removing restraints so that businesses can grow and prosper. Most recently, President Donald Trump vowed during his successful campaign to reduce regulation of business. Both Reagan and Trump received overwhelming electoral support by New Albany voters. We see it, therefore, as a considerable irony that New Albany aldermen would have the impudence to defy free market principles and disrespect local voters with an odious, anti-business regulation like the 2006 sign ordinance.

Ultimately, the marketplace determines the success or failure of any business enterprise. What Adam Smith called “the invisible hand” — the marketplace — ultimately regulates what is a successful sign for a business and what is a failed sign.

We respectfully submit that the city of New Albany should get out of the way of business growth by repealing the 2006 sign ordinance and not replacing it.

Sadly, the enthusiasm for regulating and “planning” business growth in New Albany is so strong (including among professed Republicans, who should know better), that it is probably not politically feasible to do away entirely with the notion of restricting business by a sign ordinance.

It seems to us vital that, regarding signs and all other matters, New Albany aldermen, all elected to make political decisions, should step up and make those political decisions with promptness, rationality, clarity and courage. City aldermen, after all, have no other legitimate role except making political decisions. They should stop cringing and pussy-footing about doing it.

Recently elected First Ward Aldermen, Amy Livingston, has asked us and others to give input on what should be done to revise the ludicrous sign ordinance.

We believe the best politically feasible course is to repeal the 2006 ordinance and adopt a streamlined sign ordinance something like what follows. It is about 700 words long compared to 6,600 confusing words in the current ordinance, We realize that it must be written in a manner consistent with legal language and protocols and that other tweaking will be required, but we submit that this would be a good start. Here it is:

Proposed New Albany Sign Ordinance

THE NEW ALBANY SIGN ORDINANCE of 2006 is hereby repealed, and in its stead are enacted the following provisions, which shall comprise the entire New Albany Sign Ordinance from the date below forward:

  1. Signs already in existence at the date below are permitted, regardless of their compliance with this ordinance. However, if any such sign is ever replaced, repaired, or otherwise changed, it shall comply fully with this ordinance, which is to say existing signs are “grandfathered in.”
  1. No sign shall be erected anywhere in the city unless on the same premises of a business or other organization operated from that location. Stated another way, signs commonly known as “billboards” are prohibited.
  1. Internally lighted signs are prohibited within the C-1 zoning area of the city. Signs may be lighted by external floodlights, spotlights, etc. within C-1 zoning. (Downtown New Albany is C1 zoning.)
  1. The surface area of no sign affixed to a building shall exceed, in square feet, one-and-once-half times (1.5) the total linear feet that is the horizontal length of the wall on which the sign is displayed.
  1. Signs may not be placed so as to interfere in any way with the vision of motorists traveling on city streets and must be installed at least ten (10) feet from the right-of-way.
  1. Signs mounted above the ground on poles shall not exceed _______ the height in feet (perhaps three times??) of the building in which the advertised business is located.
  1. Signs mounted on the ground, including what have been called “monument signs” in the repealed 2006 sign ordinance, shall not exceed, in total square feet, including all parts of its supporting structure, the sum produced by multiplying the total square feet of the enclosed ground level space of the advertised business by a factor of .008. (or some other decimal).
  1. Businesses wishing to install signs in the City of New Albany shall provide to the City Zoning Officer such illustrations, narrative, statistics, etc. as are needed by him to determine whether or not the proposed sign conforms to this ordinance. The Zoning Officer shall have three business days to approve or deny the application.
  1. Upon the Zoning Officer making such determination, whether approval or denial, the Zoning Officer shall post in the front lobby of city hall and shall distribute for posting or publication in all news media serving the city, the information provided in the sign permit application. Not later than two business days from the date of the determination, the same information shall be provided, in hard copy, to the mayor, all city aldermen and to any registered city voter requesting it.
  1. City elected officials and all citizens shall then have five additional business days to comment on the application. The city’s elected Board of Aldermen shall call and legally post an open meeting within no more than five additional business days to approve or reverse the determination made by the Zoning Officer. (In other words no more than 15 total business days shall pass before the sign applicant has a final determination on the sign application.)
  1. Decisions on signs shall not be submitted to the city zoning board, but shall pass directly for final decision from the Zoning Officer to the elected Board of Aldermen
  1. It is hereby acknowledged that all final decisions regarding signs are ultimately political decisions. The board may hear from the public any arguments or statements of support or denial of any sign application. Those statements may include issues not addressed in this ordinance and may be considered by the Board of Aldermen in making its decision. It is further acknowledged that the elected Board of Aldermen, having the only lawful authority to make such decisions, also has the duty to make such decisions publicly and promptly, by an “up or down vote,” within 15 business days of the date the original sign application is received by the Zoning Officer.

Approved by the Board of Aldermen and Mayor of the City of New Albany, Mississippi, this __________ day of ____________ 2017.


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1 Comment on Political decisions: The stock and trade of government officials

  1. Joyce Morrison // September 11, 2017 at 7:53 PM //

    Very good! Someone needs to pay attention!

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