By Scott Tibbs, July 23, 2008
After city officials were embarrassed by their overzealous enforcement of the city's sign ordinance earlier this month, city attorney Patty Mulvihill requested that the case be dropped. The city was seeking $1,904 from Renaissance Rentals for two balloons attached to a yard sign. But that is not the most outrageous part of the story.
According to The Herald-Times, "the city could have sought $95,200 from Henke" under its fine schedule. That is correct. City code gives the Planning Department the authority to smack a local business with a ridiculously disproportionate $95,000 fine for a couple balloons attached to a temporary free-standing sign.
Was Renaissance Rentals in violation of city code? A review of 20.06.06.04 (b) (1) indicates that there was a violation. I do not dispute the authority of city government to set reasonable regulations on signage to preserve the character of Bloomington and enforce those regulations with reasonable penalties. While I may disagree with some of the laws, I recognize the importance of the rule of law, the obligation of Renaissance Rentals to obey the law, and the importance of applying the law to everyone equally. Renaissance Rentals intentionally violated city code and therefore should pay a reasonable penalty for that violation.
The problem is that threatening to fine a local business $95,000 for a couple balloons is anything but reasonable. However one feels about the city's sign ordinance, how can anyone defend a fine that is so obviously disproportionate to the violation committed? The core problem is that city code allows for such disproportionate fines in the first place. The City Council should rewrite the fine structure and include more reasonable cap, reserving heavy fines for truly serious violations of city code. It is hard to imagine when a $95,000 fine is ever reasonable for a signage violation, and the maximum and should be significantly lowered.