Scottsdale sign-walkers could feel looser reins

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Scottsdale’s ordinance restricting “sign-walkers” to private property could be coming to an end with the likely passage of an amendment by the Arizona Legislature.

A 2008 state law requires all municipalities to allow sign-walkers, such as those dressed like the Statue of Liberty outside tax-filing offices or those who spin signs in a showman-like fashion while hawking furniture, jewelry, “cash for gold” and a variety of other goods and services.

The law allows municipalities to establish their own “reasonable” time, place and manner of restrictions. Many Valley cities decided to simply follow the state law. As a result, some cities, including Phoenix, Chandler, Glendale and Mesa, have no specific sign-walker ordinances.

In Scottsdale, sign-walkers are not allowed to wave their signs on sidewalks or at intersections, where passing traffic is more likely to see them.

However, HB 2528 would prohibit municipalities from restricting a sign-walker from “using a public sidewalk, walkway or pedestrian thoroughfare.” On March 10, the House passed the bill 57-0.

The Scottsdale City Council’s agenda for Tuesday, March 18, includes a “presentation and possible direction to staff on the current sign-walker ordinance, including possible alternatives.” The request was made by Councilman Guy Phillips on behalf of Jim Torgeson, owner of Mesa-based Sign King of Arizona.

Businesses hire Torgeson’s firm to conduct temporary promotions. The firm prints the signs and employs sign-walkers to do the job.

Phillips said banning sign-walkers from the public right of way is “really killing the business,” adding that the city needs to be more business-friendly.

“The bill already passed in the House 57-0 and the Senate will pass it, and so there’s no room to say anything,” he said. “Now all I can do is recommend we strike the current code we have and just deal with the safety issue of it. Right now we don’t address anything on the safety of it. All we’re saying is you have to be out of the public right of way.”

The restriction from public property is a safety issue to keep the sign-walkers from entering the roadway, obstructing traffic and restricting a public thoroughfare, said Scottsdale police Sgt. Mark Clark.

If the council doesn’t change the ordinance and the bill passes, “it will put us in a real bind” because the city will be in conflict with state law, Phillips said.

Torgeson said his sign-walkers have been unfairly restricted from operating in Scottsdale despite the state law. He currently is not operating in Scottsdale.

“It’s a little hard to convince people to work when they’re getting threatened and bullied around the way Scottsdale is doing it,” he said.

In a letter to the council, City Attorney Bruce Washburn said there will be “an opportunity for the council to discuss the ordinance, including possible alternatives, and to give direction to staff regarding the ordinance should you so desire.” It will be up to council members, and not staff, to propose alternatives.

The Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute has weighed in on the issue, sending a letter to Washburn and the council. The letter is from Kurt Altman, a senior attorney for the institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.

“We are very aware that Scottsdale is a unique city, and that the mayor, City Council and your office (Washburn) work diligently to maintain its unique character,” he said. “However, city regulations of commercial speech on their face and in their application, must not be inconsistent with state law or constitutional jurisprudence.”

He continued with, “as you are no doubt aware, any regulation of commercial speech must meet exacting standards and be narrowly defined to address a demonstrable and substantial government interest in order to pass constitutional muster.”

The institute will continue to monitor Scottsdale’s ordinance in light of the 2008 law and the bill progressing in the Legislature, Altman said.

“If and when this House bill passes and is signed by the governor, it will be on the municipalities and it’s pretty clear what it says,” he said.

-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

This story was originally posted on the AZ Central website.