Thursday, April 12, 2012
WALLA WALLA - The giant purple octopus mural has to go.
That's the upshot of a ruling by a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals regarding the controversy that has divided this community since 2010.
In an opinion filed this morning, the judges based in Spokane rejected Inland Octopus owner Bob Catsiff's appeal of a local judge's decision allowing the city of Walla Walla to enforce its sign regulations.
Catsiff claims the sign code is unconstitutional. But the higher-court judges disagree, upholding Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht's prior ruling.
The panel wrote, "We reject Mr. Catsiff's federal and state free speech contentions, deny his attorney fee request, and affirm" (Schacht's) decision.
Today's court ruling also concluded "the city's sign size and placement restrictions were reasonable and based on legitimate government interests."
Catsiff's attorney, Michael de Grasse, said in an interview this morning he hadn't yet read the Court of Appeals ruling.
"But I think the next step will probably be to petition the state Supreme Court to review this decision," de Grasse said.
Such review isn't automatic and if it's denied, "It's a possibility we could go to the U.S. Supreme Court because there are federal issues involved," he added.
City Attorney Tim Donaldson also hadn't seen today's ruling, but said, "The city is pleased with the result. It seems (the judges) reached the same decision as Judge Schacht."
Donaldson added that de Grasse "certainly has the right" to continue the appeals process, but pointed out that four judges already have rejected Catsiff's claims.
Catsiff has been appealing Schacht's dismissal of claims in a lawsuit Catsiff filed against the city as he attempts to keep the mural above the entrance to his toy store in a leased building at 7 E. Main St. The mural is too large for a wall sign under provisions of the city code.
Catsiff commissioned the painting of the mural Labor Day weekend 2010. He didn't have a permit and the city ultimately ordered him to remove the mural or otherwise bring it into compliance with the sign code.
Catsiff appealed to Schacht, claiming the sign code infringes on his right of free speech, is overbroad and vague.
Schacht ruled in late April 2011 that the city's wall-sign size and height restrictions and permitting requirements are constitutional, valid and enforceable. He found that Catsiff failed to prove the city sign code is unconstitutional.
Therefore, Schacht denied and dismissed Catsiff's claims.
Catsiff then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which declined direct review and transferred the case - at least at first - to the lower-level Court of Appeals, which issued its ruling this morning.
Meanwhile, the city is allowing the mural to stay in place until Catsiff exhausts his appeals. However $100-a-day fines against him that began Oct. 14, 2010, have continued accruing and he will have to pay if he ultimately loses.
He currently owes about $54,000.Terry McConn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8319.