2005-08-23

Francois Frog goes to court

Our main news outlets have already reported that Danna Lea, owner of Athena Jewelers at 228 East Clayton Street, was written a $1,000 citation for displaying a sculpture on the sidewalk as she has been doing for over 14 years. The sculpture has been traditionally displayed with its companion piece, a sitting frog, that Lea stopped displaying when county officials ordered her to remove the bench it used to sit on, a bench that Lea says the county government itself installed a number of years ago.

Athens-Clarke County Community Protection Division code enforcement officer David Eisele wrote the ticket for a violation of the recently revised ordinance concerning sidewalk signs. Lea says that as he began writing the ticket she moved the sculpture into the building's alcove at the front window so that the base of the statue was resting off the sidewalk and on private property, but he issued the citation anyway. A phone call to Eisele was returned by Ken Hix of the Building Permits and Inspections Department who said it was against policy to comment on open cases. (The CPD is a division of that department.)

Lea's arraignment for the charge was held on August 12, and a trial date was set for September 22 at 1:30 in Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court. Her attorney John Knight says that the CPD issued the ticket because the statue was protruding a few inches over the edge of the sidewalk at a restricted height. Knight said that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it infringes on freedom of expression under the First Amendment as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He says the equal protection violation stems from the fact that the ordinance is selectively tailored and applied to certain items that lie on the public sidewalk but not others. For instance, the county commission has sanctioned the placement of bulldog statues on many sidewalk locations as well as the newspaper table at Barnett's Newsstand, yet Lea's statue protruding less than six inches over the sidewalk subjects her to a criminal charge.

Athens-Banner Herald stories indicate that the impetus for the sign ordinance revision was brought to the county commission by a blind downtown resident. He complained of the dangers presented to his pathway on the sidewalk, including commercial signs and road construction barriers. Lea says that this concern does not square with a citation recently given to Angelo's Italian Restaurant at 275 East Clayton Street: she says that it received a sign ordinance citation for a sign that was placed on a sidewalk dining table. The tables are legally placed on the sidewalk under the sidewalk cafe licensing ordinance and surrounded by the prescribed railing, so the sign presents no danger to pedestrians.

Knight expresses concern that the government in a community normally tolerant of artistic expression is taking measures that reduce expression. "The citizens of Athens should be outraged," he writes. "We are confident that our Municipal Court is immune to political pressure and we have no doubt that the Court will find this problematic ordinance to be unconstitutional." Knight and Lea also say that the ordinance technically does not even apply to the sculpture since it is directed at signs and merchandise.

Lea says that the various new measures taken by the county commission are presenting an increasing level of hardship for downtown business owners. She says it is difficult to earn a living as a single mother in these conditions, so she also works in Greensboro every week. She and her assistant Tom have frequently talked of closing shop, but it seems that their passions for their work keep them going.

Lea says that the sign ordinance particularly hits hard the owners of businesses that operate off the main street level. Dynamite Clothing, for example, is no longer able to advertise its basement store with a sidewalk sign and thus escapes the notice of downtown shoppers.

The introduction of the sign ordinance was particularly unhelpful, according to Lea. She says at the time of the revision that copies of the new code were unavailable though promised to be quickly delivered to downtown business owners. However, her first notice of the ordinance was not a copy but a $1,000 citation.

Lea says that Knight is representing her on essentially a pro bono basis, but she is accepting donations for a legal defense fund.

Dan Conger of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce says that their Local Impact Committee investigates regulatory issues that affect the downtown area. This committe meets at 10:30 on the second and fourth Wednesday each month. This writer will try to bring you information about their discussions soon.