Scottsdale challenges Arizona sign-walker law

Scottsdale is challenging an Arizona law that will prevent the city from imposing its strict rules on street-corner sign walkers, claiming the law interferes with its right to self-governance as a charter city.

The immediate issue is whether Scottsdale must abide by a new state law requiring it to allow sign walkers on public property and in public rights of way. A city ordinance restricts sign walkers to private property, preventing them from standing close to traffic on sidewalks.

The larger issue, however, involves how far the state can go in imposing rules on charter cities.

Related: Sign-walker bill pits Scottsdale against state

On Thursday, Scottsdale City Attorney Bruce Washburn filed a complaint in Maricopa County Superior Court seeking a judgment declaring that the state law cannot constitutionally be applied to the city because of its status as an Arizona city governed by its own charter. Charter status allows the city to set rules for managing its streets and sidewalks, among other things, the city argues.

“My general practice is not to comment on pending litigation,” Washburn said. “However, I will say that during my tenure (since December 2009), the city has not filed another complaint seeking to have a statute declared to be inapplicable to Scottsdale because it is a charter city.”

Last month, Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law House Bill 2528, which prohibits municipalities from restricting sign walkers from “using a public sidewalk, walkway or pedestrian thoroughfare.”

Scottsdale’s complaint asks for a “speedy” hearing because “enforcement of public safety laws is at issue.” The new statute takes effect on July 23.

State law already required municipalities to allow sign walkers, but let the municipalities establish their own reasonable time, place and manner of restrictions. Many Valley cities decided to simply follow the state law.

Scottsdale, however, restricted sign walkers to private property, prohibiting them from waving signs on sidewalks or at intersections, where passing traffic is more likely to see them.

In February, the City Council directed its staff to keep the ordinance as is, continue enforcing it and to defend it if the bill became law. That came after a business owner who provides sign walkers to companies objected to Scottsdale’s stricter ordinance.

Councilman Guy Phillips cast the only no vote and suggested the city establish a permit for sign walkers to operate in the public right of way.

“I can’t see the state giving in, considering the House, Senate and governor all said people have a right to have a sign on the public sidewalk,” he said.

Councilman Dennis Robbins is glad the city is fighting the state on this issue.

“The state’s claiming it’s a free-speech issue, and we’re saying we’re just regulating commercial speech just like we do with any other commercial signs in the city,” he said.

According to the complaint, Scottsdale is a charter city under the Arizona Constitution and therefore is “sovereign in all matters that are of strictly local, municipal concern.” It further states that, under its charter, the city has “exclusive control and regulation of the use and enjoyment of its streets, alleys, public grounds or ways.”

According to the complaint, the new statute unconstitutionally interferes with Scottsdale’s self-governance in three ways: the regulation and control of its streets and sidewalks, the exercise of police power to protect the public safety, and the preservation of community aesthetics.

Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for Attorney General Tom Horne, wouldn’t comment on the complaint.

Kurt Altman, a senior attorney for the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, said he doesn’t understand why Scottsdale’s is fighting so hard to infringe on people’s constitutional rights.

“Clearly, people believe the Constitution protects this activity and the state believes it’s important, but Scottsdale somehow thinks it is not subject to those laws,” he said. “They are wrong.”

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