Activist vs. city

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Darshan Vadodaria (left), who lives across the street from the political statement sign of neighbor of Bill Towle (right) for many years, has no problem with it, saying he believes it constitutes freedom of speech. City officials say other residents have registered their dislike for the sign in writing. Towle, however, remains convinced that he and other city activists who speak up at council meetings have been targeted by the city through selective code enforcement.

Riverview yard sign dispute headed to court Wednesday

Sunday Times Newspapers

RIVERVIEW – To Bill Towle, his yard sign is a legal expression of his right to free speech.

To city officials, it’s a code violation.

The two sides will meet Wednesday in 27th District Court in an effort to determine who’s correct.

Towle said his research, reflected on his publicly displayed yard sign at Devonshire and Williamsburg and voiced at City Council meetings, found that the city’s legal fees are higher per capita compared to nearby Trenton and Wyandotte. His contention is among several editorial points on his latest yard sign.

On Dec. 24 Towle received a citation from Code Enforcement Officer Ron Lammers in the mail saying he had three days to remove the sign or arrange a court date. Towle received another citation for the sign on Friday.

As of press time the sign was still in place, and Towle did not plan to remove it.

Mayor Tim Durand said it was unlikely that city employees would remove it before the court date.

The citation says the sign does not have a permit, and that city code prohibits the installation of nonaccessory signs. An accessory sign is defined as one that has an address or other location identifier, such as a house number or building name.

Towle’s large wooden sign, on his south lawn, faces Williamsburg. It questions and compares the city’s spending on legal fees, law enforcement budget and unfunded liability for retiree health care benefits and the pension fund.

Towle frequently attends council meetings and uses resident comment time to pose similar questions to the mayor and councilors. When he believes they are not answering, he posts the questions on his sign.

Towle’s daughter, Trish, said she initiated the sign as a cathartic exercise following her brother’s death from a drug overdose in September 2006. Her father soon began expressing his political opinions on it as well and has used his yard sign to praise as well as criticize different government bodies and policies.

The sign has been vandalized in the past, but surveillance video has been unable to identify a perpetrator.

Durand said in a Dec. 24 e-mail that he doubted the city would remove the sign before the Wednesday court date, and that the citation was issued in response to numerous neighborhood complaints.

“I assure you the timeline is not suspicious,” he said. “All complaints have been within the past two weeks. People are tired of looking at it.

“We have received at least three REGISTERED complaints from neighbors in the past week. That is in addition to the many nonregistered complaints. It is my understanding that it (the sign) violates the law, and we did not act until we received valid complaints.”

The Downriver Sunday Times is awaiting a response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed Monday for documentation of the complaints that allegedly came from neighbors.

One neighbor, Darshan Vadodaria, is supportive. He lives across the street from the Towles in the 14000 block of Williamsburg and said he has no problem with the sign, which he believes is about freedom of speech.

“I think that (if) somebody has something to say that people should listen, and if they disagree, then they’re welcome to disagree,” Vadodaria said. “But I think everyone has a right to say what’s on their mind, and as long as they’re not saying something that’s slanderous, libelous or incorrect, then they have the right to say it, and I support anybody that wants to speak out.”

Towle said none of his neighbors have told him personally that the sign bothers them. He said the sign’s content currently reflects questions he has asked the council at meetings.

“You get no answers from the council,” Towle said. “They just sit there mute. They haven’t disputed any of the numbers. They can’t dispute them.

“I never put anything on a sign that I haven’t first asked them and they failed to answer. And it’s all a matter of public record. I’ve raised a lot of issues in the city. The problem I have is I never get an answer.”

City Manager Dean Workman said Monday that earlier signs were “excused” because officials understood that the family was grieving a loss. Workman also said Community Development Director David Scurto wrote letters to Towle in May and again in June 24 explaining the city’s sign ordinances.

Workman said he and Scurto met with Towle in May to clarify ordinance requirements and answer questions, but did not address specific sign content. Workman said Monday that he is aware of at least three verified resident complaints in the last couple of weeks since Towle’s latest sign went up.

“If you want a sign, go in front of the Zoning Board (of Appeals),” Workman said. “If anyone in our city puts one up, they need to follow our rules. We are not picking on Towle.”

Workman also said residents can petition the council to change the zoning ordinances.

Towle believes he and others have been targets of selective code enforcement because they have raised a lot of issues at council meetings, citing another resident who Towle said received a notice for operating a home-based business.

In his case, Towle said, city officials will have to prove he’s violated the code, and he doesn’t believe he has.

“They’re claiming that nonaccessory signs are prohibited,” he said. “If you look at the code, all the illustrations are commercial examples.

“What they’re saying is that in residential communities you’re not allowed to have any sign, which again would prohibit … all political signs … in any elections, any millage issues.”

Trish Towle supports her father.

“Since Dad retired he’s had more time, and I guess it helps him,” she said of the sign postings. “But everything on that sign is the truth. They can’t fight the truth. It’s freedom of speech all the way! That’s what I keep telling my dad, but I’ve always known for a long time how Riverview worked. I grew up here.”

In the meantime, Durand said, the court will decide “what is legal.”

“There are two sides to every story,” he said.