Tuesday, March 26, 2013
WALLA WALLA — With the clock ticking, a local toy store owner still is trying to save his giant purple octopus from the long arm of the city of Walla Walla’s sign code.
Inland Octopus owner Bob Catsiff wrote in an email to the Union-Bulletin this morning he will continue to fight to preserve the mural above his leased toy store at 7 E. Main St.
The painting he commissioned on Labor Day weekend 2010 without a permit is too large under the city’s sign code.
Although he has lost numerous court battles, including one all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Catsiff said in his email today he now is presenting the argument that numerous violations of the sign code have existed for years and the city has engaged in selective enforcement against him.
He is under order by the city to paint over the octopus or make it smaller by midnight Wednesday or the city can do it at his expense.
His attorney, Michael de Grasse, said in an interview this morning he’s waiting for a response from the city regarding a letter he wrote to City Attorney Tim Donaldson earlier this month.
In the letter, de Grasse indicated the city would need judicial action to enforce the city’s order. He also wrote that the issue of selective enforcement — although it wasn’t brought up previously — may be appropriate for litigation now. However, de Grasse told the Union-Bulletin he didn’t intend to file a court action.
“We are hoping to have discussions with the city,” he said.
City Manager Nabiel Shawa said in an interview today that Donaldson disagrees with de Grasse’s positions and the city hasn’t had recent contact with Catsiff.
“We are in a holding pattern,” Shawa said. “My hope is he will come forward and bring the sign into compliance with the city code.”
He added that Catsiff can have a painted octopus above his store. But “the size of the sign needs to be brought down into conformance,” Shawa said.
Catsiff — who agreed the painting is a wall sign by the city’s definition — has lost all attempts in various courts to make the city back off.
About a year ago, the state Court of Appeals in Spokane rejected his contention that his constitutional free-speech rights are being restricted by the city’s sign code. The three-judge panel said the city’s size and placement restrictions are reasonable and based on legitimate government interests.
Then on Feb. 25, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review that ruling, thereby exhausting Catsiff’s appeals in the lawsuit he filed in late 2010.
Shawa immediately issued a statement, saying the city intended to enforce a hearing examiner’s initial order, giving Catsiff 30 days to bring the mural into full compliance with the sign code or the city could abate it.
Fines that have accrued at the rate of $100 a day since Oct. 14, 2010, also will be imposed on Catsiff, according to Shawa. They now amount to about $89,000.
Shawa said today the city will decide how to proceed after Wednesday.
“I’m just going to hold tight and see what occurs,” he said.
News release from Inland Octopus owner Bob Catsiff, issued Tuesday morning:
In March of 2010, I approached the city with plans to paint a mural on the front of my toy store. I was told it would not be allowed. The Downtown Foundation then offered to design it for me with the idea that it would then be allowed. I declined this offer and asked what codes would regulate the mural I had proposed. This question remained unanswered for months though I reiterated it regularly. The city was asked specifically if this would be considered a sign; the answer was no. Consequently, I did not apply for a sign permit. At no time were size and height mentioned as being a problem, only that it would not be allowed and I should allow a design committee to dictate the style and content of my mural.
After the city issued a notice of violation of its sign code, I decided to defend the mural with a free speech argument. My belief was that an attack on the code itself would be more effective and was certainly more palatable than attacking the responsible individuals or pointing out the preponderance of sign code violators.
As one of my few remaining options to preserve the mural, I now present the argument that the city is selectively enforcing its sign code. This is actually a very simple argument: the city has never taken enforcement action against any sign code violator though numerous violations have existed for years.
On March 7, my lawyer mailed a letter to the City Attorney stating my position regarding the apparent selective enforcement being applied to the octopus mural. In the letter, we also request the city’s position on the facts we present and our legal analysis of this selective enforcement. As of today, we still await an answer. A copy of the letter is attached.
Though I struggle to weather the mental stress and financial burden this has caused, I shall continue fighting to preserve the mural due to overwhelming community support and my deep belief that I am right.
I sincerely thank all those who support me and I ask you to please keep your words positive. Remember we are all part of the same community. Please refrain from verbal attacks on entire industries, groups or individual businesses. Instead, calmly and repeatedly voice your support to those people who can make a difference. Those people are the City Council, the City Attorney and the City Manager.