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.