Poltiical signs, deposit

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 8, 2011

Wary of lawsuit, aldermen backpedal on signs, deposit

By Rupert Howell and Billy Davis

A moratorium on the City of Batesville’s new political sign ordinance was declared and a Batesville fireman will be recommended for termination following a lengthy meeting Tuesday of Batesville’s board of mayor and aldermen.

Three issues caused the board to shut the doors on visitors and a reporter and go into a two-hour-and-five-minute executive session.

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Mississippi’s Open Meetings law allows boards and commissions to close the doors with certain topics such as litigation strategy, purchases or sale of real estate, and individual personnel matters.

The possibility of litigation concerning the city’s new sign ordinance involving political signs and incumbent Constable Ray Hawkins’ refusal to pay a $300 refundable cash bond to the City to place election signs in the city, drove the imposition of the moratorium.

Hawkins stated last week that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among others, would have joined him on the issue pending the results of a July 13 court date in City of Batesville Municipal Court.

That issue is now mute as the board voted to impose a moratorium until after November’s General election on enforcement.

Aldermen also voted to refund candidates who have made the $300 deposit to city government.

Hawkins had taken city officials and administrators to task, citing his First Amendment rights, and he took himself to the code enforcement office to receive his ticket while facing a $500 fine for failing to post the bond.

After the board meeting, Hawkins told The Panolian he learned second hand about the board’s action and has not been formally told the issue is over.

“I’ve still got a ticket,” Hawkins said. “Unless I get something in writing, I’ve still got a court date.”

Assistant City Attorney Colmon Mitchell explained afterward that it was never the board’s intention to curtail anyone’s right to free speech.

The intention was to, “Help keep the city looking good and avoid clutter,” Mitchell said while noting that the policy was adopted through city’s zoning laws when a public hearing was held with no objections.

“We’ll go back through zoning and address the rough edges,” Mitchell said noting that election season was here and adding, “It’s in the best interest to call time out and find what’s best for the city.”

A real estate issues discussed during the closed door session included city owned property in the  shopping center near Wal-Mart.Board members reported that no official action was taken. Another issue concerning property that could be used for economic development was mentioned by Mayor Jerry Autrey but no action was taken.