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City commissioners reverse course on ‘live signs’ ban

City commissioner Tommy Johns before rescinding his previous vote in favor of the ban on people signs.A month after Macclenny city commissioners unanimously approved a proposed ban on the use of people carrying advertising signs, they reversed themselves this week and said such advertising should be permitted.

The reversal came during a city commission meeting the evening of August 14 when  about a dozen people attended the meeting presumably to object to the proposed ban. They all left immediately after commissioners said they had changed their minds.

Commissioners agreed that in today’s harsh economic climate businesses need all the help they can get to attract customers. If that takes hiring someone to walk on the sidewalk carrying a sign advertising a particular business, then so be it.

Leading off was Commissioner Tommy Johns, who said he had read an article in The Baker County Press last month in which a Baker County High School student who carries a sign for a business downtown was quoted as saying she needed the job and had found it difficult finding one at her age.

“I was impressed,” Commissioner Johns said. “The young lady said she wanted to work and she could not find a job (until she was hired as a sign bearer for Pawnderosa).”

 

He also said he did not agree with those who claim people carrying advertising signs could pose a safety hazard by distracting motorists’ attention as they drive by.

The commission chambers was packed by attendees, presumably in opposition to the sign carrying ban.One person carrying a sign up and down the sidewalk advertising a business, Commissioner Johns said, is no more hazardous than “15 people on the edge of the street corner waving political campaign signs.”

People driving past groups of politicians and their campaign supporters, often camped just inches from street curbs and surrounded by signs urging people to vote for their candidate, is more of a distraction to motorists than a single person carrying business signs on sidewalks, he said.

“You want to know who they are, if you’re for them, and who they’re for,” he said.

Secondly, Mr. Johns said, student groups often congregate in front of businesses holding signs advertising car washes and other fund raisers for various school activities. If they and political campaign sign wavers are allowed to conduct their activities in public, then so should merchants that want to hire people to carry signs advertising their businesses.

Furthermore, he said, firefighters stand in the streets with boots outstretched soliciting donations for Muscular Dystrophy Association, which he acknowledged is a wonderful organization. Still, he said, that’s a lot more dangerous than a young lady walking along the sidewalk holding a sign bearing the name of a local business.

“They wear orange vests, but they’re in the middle of the street,” he said, adding that for all the reasons he had cited he was “rescinding my vote” on last month’s tentative approval of the ban.

Commissioner Phil Rhoden said he, too, had “done some soul searching” after discussing the issue with several business owners and came to the same conclusion that prohibiting human advertising sign bearers was not warranted.

Some businesses, he said, may be “one or two customers away from staying in business or going out of business.” Hiring someone to tote a sign in front of their store might mean the difference, he said.

However, Mr. Rhoden said he would not favor allowing businesses to conduct such advertising without some restrictions.

“I think there is a need for us to set some parameters for what we’re going to allow,” he said. “We don’t want to eliminate anyone’s job. I talked to one young man who said he was just trying to keep gas in his vehicle. I want to keep this a viable form of advertising.”

However, he said people carrying advertising signs should be required to stay directly in front of the business they work and at least one step back off the sidewalk.

Mayor Gary Dopson, who first suggested the ordinance prohibiting the practice of human signs, said he “didn’t realize how valuable these signs are to some businesses.” But he said he agreed that some restrictions are necessary to “keep them from running up and down the block.”

The mayor said he wanted to make it clear, though, that the city has no intention of prohibiting firefighters or any other group from conducting “civic fund  raising” activities in public places.

Commissioner Richard Johnson didn’t push for a prohibition on groups holding signs, such as students at car wash fund raisers and politicians and campaign supporters standing on street corners. But he said he had “some questions about it.”

Finally, commissioners directed City Attorney Frank Maloney to draft a new ordinance specifically allowing human sign bearers on sidewalks in front of their employer’s business. The ordinance will be brought before the commission next month.

One person who spoke in favor of allowing the practice was Ronnie Kirkland, who brought his granddaughter to the meeting with him. He said she is “one of those sign carriers.”

“I’m proud of her,” Mr. Kirkland said. “She’s 16 years old and smart as a whip. She’s trying to raise money for college. I know a lot of youngsters who wouldn’t do that.”

He also said pawn brokers and other dealers who buy and sell gold, many of whom hire people to carry signs advertising their business, provide a useful service to the public by buying peoples’ old jewelry and giving them cash that they may need for ordinary household expenses.

“Banks won’t do it,” he said.

Mr. Kirkland said he was grateful to commissioners for changing their mind and deciding to draft a new ordinance allowing his granddaughter to keep her job so she can raise money for college “so I don’t have to pay too much of it.”

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