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City stops short of citations for sign violators
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An effort to curb the onslaught of illegal signs by police officers has been short-lived.

A year ago members of the Ceres City Council complained about the proliferation of A-frame signs that fly in the face of a city sign ordinance that expressly prohibits them. Ken Lane, a member of the council, complained then how areas of Ceres' commercial district were looking "tacky." Acting City Manager Art deWerk asked the council for some time to formulate a plan of enforcement since code enforcement personnel was trimmed due to budget cuts.

One idea he formulated is the new Volunteers in Code Enforcement (V.I.C.E.) program which is now accepting applicants. Unpaid volunteers will help city staff bear down on blight conditions, including violations of the city's sign ordinance.

However, Ceres police officers recently also got involved and volunteered to begin contacting business owners who were violating the city's 1995 sign ordinance. Officers targeted A-frame signs, feather signs, banners and windows that were covered by 40 percent or more by signs. In a single day of enforcement, officers contacted 29 business owners along Mitchell Road with all but three complying and removing their signs.

"Three of them told us to go pound sand," confirmed Sgt. Pat Sullivan.

He would not disclose the identities of the three businesses, but said one is at the southeast corner of Service and Mitchell and the other two were at the "north end of town."

When police prepared to issue administrative citations for the three businesses, city administration pulled the plug.

"When I was told that signs enforcement was part of the plan, my direction was that it was fine as long as it was on a warning basis only," said deWerk, who also serves as police chief. "It appears to me that my directive was passed along to the officers after they had substantially started their clean-up initiative or the order was given on a timely basis and intentionally not followed. I will be looking into where and why there was a communications breakdown."

He added that "the warning vs. citations policy is necessary at this time because the sign ordinance has been left alone for a very long time and to start full-blown enforcement without a warning period would be unfair and non-productive."

"We're suspending the cites until the sign issue is fixed," said Sgt. Sullivan.

The explanation given was that an ad hoc committee is exploring possible changes to the sign ordinance.

"Until the council decides on the content of the ordinance, my policy is for the enforcement personnel to tell violators of the current ordinance that their current practices may be subject to enforcement in the near future and that within a short time from now, the code will be clarified," said deWerk. "As was reported to me, many businesses voluntarily complied and removed the signs that were at issue, but several did not because they knew that the enforcement policy was for warnings only until they were informed otherwise."

The city has considered relaxing the A-frame ban in the spirit of "trying to become business friendly" said Community Development Director Tom Westbrook.

Approximately 10 years ago, in response to Chamber of Commerce requests, planning commissioners directed then Planning Director Randy Hatch to change the law to permit A-frame signs. Hatch had resigned his post and the changes fell through the cracks, said Westbrook.

As written, the city's Sign Ordinance forbids portable or A-frame signs, (except location real estate signs) as well as signs that impede pedestrian traffic or vision, and signs in the public right of way. It also does not permit signs consisting of any moving, swinging, rotating, flashing, blinking or animated components, except barber poles, clocks, thermometers or electronic changeable copy signs. Also not permitted are windblown devices and signs whose movement is designed to attract attention, such as pennants, flags, inflatable signs or balloons, or reflective attachments to sign faces.

Last fall, deWerk laid out ideas to ramp up the economic development activities of the city which included much talk about ways Ceres can improve its physical image which has a direct bearing on who is willing to invest in Ceres. Talk also centered on making Ceres more business friendly.

Sgt. Sullivan said his department has been assisting Code Enforcement Officer Frank Alvarez in eradicating blight in Ceres. He said the city is working with owners of empty lots to remove trash rather than plow it under. The city, through a contract with Howard Training Center, arranged for the trash clean-up of El Camino from Pine Street to Service Road. The crew picked up enough debris to fill 15 dumpsters by the time it combed two-thirds of the stretch.

"It hasn't been cleaned in years," remarked Sullivan.

The city also will be issuing warnings to property owners of trashy vacant fields along Whitmore Avenue west of Highway 99 and along Fairview Drive.

"We have a ton of work to do," said Sgt. Sullivan.

When Alvarez threatened recently to issue a citation to the owner of property at the southwest corner of Roeding and Mitchell roads for failing to clean up his property, he jumped on it and had a crew clean it that day.

"Sometimes it takes a citation to get the land owners to comply just to clean the city up," said Sullivan.