ORINDA -- The city is backing off its new sign ordinance, in response to concerns the regulations could limit free speech in the middle of election season.
Orinda officials say they will not enforce parts of the ordinance related to temporary portable signs -- which includes campaign signs -- while staff works with the city attorney to rewrite the law.
The new regulations went into effect Aug. 20 and limits temporary portable signs to one per residential property. Signs in the downtown require a permit.
Candidates also may only display signs along roadways or other public rights of way on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and are limited to four such signs citywide, according to the ordinance.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sent a letter to Mayor Tom McCormick Sept. 1 asserting the new regulations limit residents' right to free speech and candidates' right to communicate with voters.
"The First Amendment constrains a government's ability to impose restrictions on the display of political signs, and (the new sign ordinance) simply goes too far," ACLU Legal Director Alan Schlosser wrote. "Because free and robust communication is so imperative at this critical time, the ACLU-NC asks that Orinda suspend enforcement of the ordinance until several constitutional problems are corrected."
The following day, City Clerk Michele Olsen sent an e-mail to Orinda city council, school board and fire district candidates saying the city would not enforce the regulations but asking them to "use your best judgment when placing signs in the public right of way."
The city will continue to enforce the regulations with regard to signs attached to trees or utility poles or signs that pose a safety hazard, like those placed in the median of a roadway, said City Manager Janet Keeter.
Orinda updated its sign ordinance after its attorney advised staff the city could not regulate signs by content, Keeter said.
Council members said the restrictions on temporary portable signs were geared toward businesses, particularly real estate agents, who put up displays on weekends.
"It had the unintended consequence of also controlling campaign signs, and as soon as staff figured that out, then they took immediate steps to rectify the situation," McCormick said.
Council members said they fully support the city's efforts to ensure Orinda's laws are constitutional, although Councilman Steve Glazer said candidates should nonetheless exercise restraint during the campaign season.
"If (candidates) want to protect their good name these signs shouldn't be littered throughout our community," he said. "They should be placed with prior arrangements on neighbors' lawns. That's the way to get the greatest impact and to keep our town beautiful."
Keeter said specific changes to the regulations have not yet been developed, but she will work with Olsen, the planning director, the public works director and the city attorney to craft language that will comply with free speech laws while remaining content-neutral.
Contact Jonathan Morales at 925-943-8048. Read the Lamorinda Sun blog at www.ibabuzz.com/lamorindasun.