Rules reinforce, protect shared goals, values

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In order to add dimension to the discussion about the Inland Octopus painting, I'd like to review both a little history and the role of the City Council in code enforcement.

Many of us remember downtown as it was 25 years ago. Two major department stores had left downtown, buildings and sidewalks were deteriorating, the area was empty by 5:30 p.m. and the heart of our city was failing.

In response, property owners, businesses, and civic-minded individuals organized the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation to help them work together to revitalize our city center. They passed a local improvement district -an LID - by which they taxed themselves to rebuild the downtown streetscape - sidewalks, trees, streetlights, benches.

These business people spent millions of dollars renovating buildings. They volunteered their time to keep public areas maintained. They hired staff to coordinate their efforts, recruit new businesses, and welcome the public to downtown events and activities. Their work has restored the downtown to its proper place as the civic and public center of the city, where businesses want to be located and people want to spend time.

These business interests also developed standards to preserve the character and economic vitality of the downtown, and were successful in having them adopted as part of our municipal code in 2003.

The city sign ordinance was enacted after a public process that included planning commission hearings and City Council meetings. The ordinance states that a downtown sign, including a wall painting, that "identifies, advertises and/or promotes" a business, must be no larger than 150 square feet, in keeping with our shared values and goals.

A commonsense test for whether an image "identifies, advertises, and/or promotes" a particular business would be whether a new business moving into that space - clothing store, restaurant, professional office, or other retail or service business - would keep a former tenant's image on the front of their building.

It's important to understand that the downtown sign ordinance does accommodate businesses that want to paint signs on their storefront, and the Inland Octopus painting would be permitted if it were within the size limitations of the ordinance. A wide variety of downtown businesses have successfully identified themselves and promoted their businesses while conforming to the reasonable provisions of the sign code.

We all have a stake in enforcing the rules that have been established for the common good through our democratic and public process. In our country we believe in an independent judicial system for resolving conflicts in interpreting laws, such as the present case. Code violations, whether they involve menacing dogs, driving infractions, sign issues or a host of other matters, are handled through a hearing examiner and the courts, not by city councils.

Our City Council offers opportunities for public comment at every meeting, both at the beginning, for matters not on the agenda, and then as each agenda item is discussed. We appreciate the time people take to attend Council meetings and the ideas they offer. Again, however, councils aren't in charge of code enforcement.

I hope those who are discussing this exciting painting will keep in mind that members of the Council are your friends and neighbors. We are bound by the same laws and regulations as everyone else, we pay the same taxes and fees, and we, too, care very much about the well-being of our community, both for now and for when our children and grandchildren are adults and raising children of their own.

We are supporters of local and small businesses. In the last dozen years the Council has adopted purchasing policies to facilitate purchases of supplies and equipment from local businesses, established a small works roster to make it easier for local contractors to compete for public projects, and sought ways to allow local businesses to bid on large public works projects that might otherwise have gone to big out-of-town companies, most recently with the infrastructure repair project and new police station.

We also support facilities and programs for children. It will be particularly important for us all to work together to create an aquatic facility, just as we have already done for playground equipment and recreation programs in our city parks.

Thank you for caring so much about our community.

Barbara Clark is mayor of Walla Walla.

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