From Matt Davis at the Portland Mercury, April 10, 2008

The city is only punishing human beings under its sidewalk obstruction ordinance, and letting unlicensed sidewalk signs go unpunished because it doesn’t want to harm small business, according to the city’s sign specialist, speaking at this morning’s Street Access For Everyone Committee.

TWO BITS OF ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR DOWNTOWN: BUT DISPARATE PUNISHMENT…

The mayor’s office and Portland Business Alliance have been arguing all along that the sidewalk obstruction ordinance was about providing everyone equal access to the sidewalk for everyone, and that the law was not targeted at people, especially any specific group of people. But the city has yet to punish a single unlicensed sign under the ordinance. Meanwhile, it has gone after plenty of homeless people.

Nobody from the city attorney’s office ever said [the sidewalk obstruction ordinance] affected us,” said Janice Dole, the city’s non-electrical sign specialist, at this morning’s meeting. “And when I’ve talked to the police before about enforcing this they said they weren’t willing to have any part of it.”

It’s Dole’s job to write the permits for 4000 sign-holders in downtown Portland. A business can pay her office $48 for a 1-year permit, $86 for a 2-year permit, or $450 for a permit that never expires. Her department walks through every commercial area on a yearly basis, checking for unlicensed signs, and if it spots them, it sends three warning letters over a 120-day period, before removing the sign and fining the business $35.

The problem is that as well as contravening the permitting process, unlicensed A-boards also contravene the new sidewalk obstruction ordinance. Under it, violations—illegal sign owners, or people sitting or lying on the sidewalk, obstructing passage—are potentially subject to a $400 fine, and there’s no such thing as a warning letter or 120-day process.

Both are laws that say you can’t have something unpermitted on the sidewalk and it appears to me that one is being enforced, the other one isn’t being enforced that much,” says Patrick Nolen of Sisters of the Road.

With the sign portion going unenforced, “there’s a perception of unfairness that if someone leaves their belongings out on the street we’re threatening them with a $400 fine,” said Marc Jolin, of homeless nonprofit JOIN. “But we’re only fining people $35 for obstructing the sidewalk with a sign for their business, when it seems clear to me that that’s also a violation of the sidewalk obstruction ordinance.”

Dole also admitted stopping enforcement in Old Town/Chinatown and downtown recently at the request of the Old Town neighborhood association, “because we didn’t want to make anybody go out of business,” she said. Her department is supposed to only allow one sign per entrance, and the signs are supposed to be six inches from the curb. Dole said the department only responds to complaints because it “doesn’t want to be unreasonable.”

“It’s a contradiction,” said Doreen Binder of Transition Projects, inc.

In an effort to go after people with unlicensed signs, the Portland Business Alliance’s Clean & Safe officers have been logging their contacts with unlicensed sign owners. In March, they logged 117 conversations with unlicensed sign owners, but the city hasn’t been following up with punishments for any of them.

Here are a few signs I counted in twenty minutes walking around downtown this morning, all of which appear to be missing the city permit sticker, and don’t appear to be following the city’s placement rules:

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