Belleville business owner files civil rights lawsuit over TIF sign

News-DemocratAugust 6, 2013 

A Belleville business owner and political opponent of Mayor Mark Eckert and the Good Government Party filed a federal lawsuit against the city claiming her civil rights were violated when the city ordered her to remove a sign from her window.

The flap began earlier this year when Dianne Rogge, the owner of the old Pour Haus in the 1900 block of West Main Street, requested $15,000 in tax increment financing from the city to renovate the bar, but she claimed she was denied because she supported Mayor Mark Eckert's political opponent Phil Elmore. Rogge put up a sign in her window that stated, "No TIF for us, Tks B'ville."

City employees Bob Sabo, director of health and housing, and the city's building commissioner Paul Bauman sent her letters in June ordering Rogge to remove her TIF sign or face a $500-a-day fine.

The letters were meant to quiet political opposition, said Eric Rhein, who filed the suit on Rogge's behalf.

"They have to follow the First Amendment no matter who they are," Rhein said. "It reigns supreme and political signs are afforded the highest amount of protection."

Eckert declined to comment and referred questions to city attorney Garrett Hoerner.

In a 20-page complaint filed by Rhein, Rogge claimed that the city's sign ordinance is unconstitutional. The suit also stated that the ordinance is applied the statute unevenly and in a discriminatory fashion.

Business owners who use signage must get a permit and pay a fee of 50 cents per square foot with a minimum fee of $15 if the sign is less than a square-foot. The sign must be approved for the location and follow the city's sign ordinance regarding size and other criteria.

Bauman told a reporter in June that business owners wouldn't need a permit if they put up a political sign.

" ... the likely drafter of the city's current sign ordinance, the ex-city attorney, Robert Sprague, lawfully posts political signs in his law office front window on East Washington Street in the city at election time, and the city has never sent this 'Belleville Good Government Party' leader any cease and desist letters," Rhein wrote.

Rogge filed the suit Monday against the city, Bauman and Sabo.

The lawsuit seeks to bar the city from enforcing the sign ordinance, monetary damage to compensate for the violation of Rogge's civil rights, attorneys fees and punitive damages against Bauman for $50,000.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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