City of Tulare could face lawsuit over sign ordinance

Some Tulare residents are afraid they’ll fall afoul of the city’s sign ordinance by placing political signs on their lawn — so a Visalia law firm is preparing to sue to overturn the policy, which the firm claims is unconstitutional.

In a letter to Tulare City Manager Joseph Carlini and the Tulare City Council, the Melo and Sarsfield law firm said that “on behalf of our clients, we demand that the City of Tulare take immediate steps to repeal these unconstitutional provisions and immediately cease any enforcement of same.”

The law firm also demanded in the letter that Tulare conduct voter education to undo any damage which the allegedly unconstitutional ordinance has done.

Melo and Sarsfield represent a group of Tulare residents who support Matt Darby, candidate for the office of Tulare County District Attorney.

The law firm included a draft of the lawsuit that they will be filing next week if the city does not respond in a timely manner.

As currently written, displaying yard signs can be interpreted as violating the City of Tulare Municipal Code.

The draft lawsuit states, ‘Plaintiffs have been chilled from displaying their political signs because of their reasonable fear of arrest and/or prosecution.”

“Our clients are upstanding citizens of Tulare and want to follow the law. They do not want a confrontation with the Tulare Police Department (TPD,)” said Marguerite Melo, one half of the firm.

Tulare’s Sign Ordinance is “Unconstitutional,” Suit Claims

Ordinances such as Tulare’s have been ruled unconstitutional in two cases, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015) and City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43 (1994), the Melo and Sarsfield letter states.

The firm’s suit claims that in light of those rulings, Tulare’s ordinance is over broad and too restrictive. It also prohibits lighting of any sign and puts limits on when residents can display political signs.

The ordinance also encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, which is considered a major problem for law abiding residents living in Tulare, the suit adds.

“Look at the city’s leadership,” Melo said.

The law firm and plaintiffs believe that, with Tulare Mayor Carlton Jones’ prior allegations and history of bullying and verbal abuse, he would do whatever is in his power to protect Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward.

Melo claimed that the way Ward turns a blind eye towards Mayor Jones’ behavior, and defends him in court, illustrates their political connection.

In March of 2016 the District Attorney’s office charged a Tulare resident with “Vandalism Under $400 Damage” when the defendant punctured Jones’ tires. The defendant punctured Jones’ tires in retaliation for Jones allegedly having an affair with the defendant’s wife.

The office then represented Jones in a case that was declared a mistrial because the jury voted 11-1 against Jones’ accusation that the defendant violated a restraining order.

“The question is,” said Melo, “what has prompted Tulare to keep these old ordinances on the books?”

Melo believes that given the opportunity, the city council will not willingly change the sign ordinance.

“My clients don’t put it past the TPD coming by their house if they display political yard signs supporting Matt Darby,” said Melo.

Melo said that the ordinance is in violation of First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and limits residents their right to free speech.

“The First amendment means what it says, ‘No infringement.’ I don’t know how much more clear it can be,” said Melo.

Time is of the Essence

Melo stressed how important the element of time was in addressing the sign ordinance issue because the election for Tulare County District Attorney will be over in June.

As far as the cost to Tulare, Melo said it comes down to damages.

“The longer they wait the more they will have to pay,” said Melo.

“As the prevailing party in this dispute, we are entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. We will submit a bill separately,” said Melo in the letter.

She explained that their law firm’s fees go up exponentially over a short period of time because the law firm has to put aside all their cases that are generating income to deal with this matter.

“Should the City of Tulare refuse such reasonable requests, my clients will be seeking judicial enforcement of their rights. I have included a draft of the lawsuit which we will be filing with the Tulare County Superior Court should the City of Tulare continue to promulgate such unconstitutional laws.”

“We look forward to your reply in all due haste,” reads the conclusion of her letter to the city.

The firm has not yet has not heard back from Carlini, and will be filing their suit early next week.

7 thoughts on “City of Tulare could face lawsuit over sign ordinance

  1. Too many Tulare Council members have paid Tim Ward to turn his head to important issues in city of Tulare, especially Tulare Hospital/HCCA and city Chief of Police which neither has been resolved. City of Tulare is afraid of Matt Darby. He is a no nonsense man. He can clean up the corruption in the DA office.

    • Turn his head? It’s not his job to hold the hand of the hospital board or council. We can all agree there were and are stupid decisions made in Tulare but because Ward doesn’t fly down in a cape and rescue Tulare doesn’t mean there is corruption in the DA’s office. He prosecutes for breaking laws not political differences in the case of the hospital and a power hungry mayor. I don’t want the DA making hospital board decisions or city council decisions. The people in tulare are taking care of Tulare. Hospital elections voted in a new board and Tulare residents are exposing the mayor as a liar and bully. This group is preying on Ward because they assume he supports Carlton. Quit witch hunting without facts. I’m not up on the negative doing of the DA’s office…do you have other proof other than the previous mentioned issues? Educate us with facts please.

  2. When I was doing campaigning last election, there was a time line for putting out your signs…..66 or something days before the election.
    I don’t think that is unreasonable, because sometimes the election season seems to drag on and on.
    Everybody knows, 66 days before and you have to take them down 30 afterwards. If they’re still up, then you can be called on to remove them.

    • Who is Carlton Jones to say when I can or cannot speak out for my favorite candidate? He’s not king.

  3. Wow, the Matt Darby supporters are trying to kick the City of Tulare while its dealing a ton of other issues. I think this is a direct reflection of the candidate and his lack of leadership. He should realize this is a huge waste of taxpayer money in a community that desperately needs the money. And to what end?To put up a little sign a few days earl?

    From reading the ordinance it appears that it reasonably regulates the time, place and manner of signs equally among all candidates. So doesn’t seem unreasonable – t he last thing anyone wants to see is 1,000s of political signs year round.

    Seems like the Matt Darby supporters, who are mostly his church congregation and high school friends just want to sue the City of Tulare to raise money for his campaign. Shame on you Darby and his supporters for wasting taxpayer money.

    • Dude, did you even read the article? It didn’t say Darby had anything to do with it. It’s some other people and their lawyers.

  4. I am neither, so why are they only choosing to enforce now. Why didn’t they enforce last election or during hospital measure and recall?

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