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Enforcing sign ordinance or lack thereof is a big issue
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Want to pick out a controversial issue in Manteca that seems to never end?

Then here’s your sign.

The latest version of the sign debate takes place tonight when the City Council mulls over a plan to treat human signs within 100 feet of controlled intersections no differently than panhandlers as well as requiring businesses to get city permits  and provide proof of insurance for sign wavers, A-frames, and banner flags.

Flare ups of controversy over signs are nothing new.

Hundreds of people back in the 1970s packed meetings when the owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise wanted to place a rotating chicken bucket sign at their original Manteca location (now Athens Burgers) in downtown on Yosemite Avenue.

The style of the “offending” signs based on proliferation or looks has changed over the years running the gamut from window signs, lawn signs, and flashing signs to A-frames and waving signs moved by forced air. The one thing that is constant, though has been enforcement or - depending on one’s viewpoint - lack of enforcement.

Enforcement was a major concern among the citizens panel appointed by the council that formulated the proposed sign ordinance changes being reviewed tonight. It also was discussed at length by those attending workshops on the proposed sign changes.

The main issue was whether the city - with just two code enforcement officers - has the staff to enforce of the new sign provisions.

It was determined that enforcement of the municipal code is a separate issue from whether the city should allow signs on public sidewalks or not.

Critics point out that the enforcement issue is what makes whatever the council does tonight moot especially since signs are already being allowed on municipal sidewalks often in places that are clearly hazardous to pedestrians and traffic. The existing sign ordinance gives the city the power to remove hazardous signs which rarely happens unless it is responding to a complaint.

Unless the city rolls out a strategy that is different when it comes to enforcement, any new rules adopted by the council won’t be enforced unless someone complains.

City uses hybrid approach to enforcement

The city has in place what they call a “hybrid approach.” That means they don’t go looking for infractions nor do they simply respond to a single location of a complaint.

What they do is send a code enforcement officer out to check out a complaint and then survey other property that they can see nearby to determine if they have a similar violation. If so, all are cited. But if a code enforcement officer sees a number of other businesses going to and from the complaint site with similar violations he doesn’t cite any of them.

The policy was the outgrowth of feuding neighbors using code enforcement laws to get back at each other.

The hybrid strategy has its limits.

Back when a Texaco station was still at the corner of Powers and Yosemite, complaints were made against the owner for having illegal signs. The gas station actually had less non-complying signs than almost every other station in town. The difference was that the owner was being targeted by an individual who did not like the fact he was an Iraqi immigrant and assumed he was Muslim. The owner was a Iraqi Christian.

That is exactly the type of situation that the city contends they won’t get in the middle of with a hybrid enforcement approach. It only works though if whoever is using the code enforcement system to take a cheap shot at a person lives or does business in the immediate vicinity.

Council members over the years have vacillated back and forth  from wanting crackdowns to having the city staff back off on enforcement.

At one point when Toters became an all-consuming issue with a large number of people complaining about them being left out in front of homes seven days a week in clear view of the street - a violation of the ordinance - the council directed a blanket education and enforcement effort.

Every resident was informed of the rules while volunteers with the Seniors Helping Area Residents and Police helped issue warning notices to those violating the Toter rules. They worked through the city in sections until every neighborhood was hit. Compliance to the Toter rules went up significantly and the number of cases over Toter violations making their way to court fell off significantly.

This time around Mayor Willie Weatherford has suggested a monthly education effort through a newsletter or some other form to educate residents on the property maintenance rules adopted by the city.

The council meets at 7 p.m. tonight at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.