Deal calls for Belleville to pay $30K to business owner, exempt political signs from regulation

News-DemocratMarch 1, 2014 

— The city of Belleville will pay $30,000 to a business owner who claimed in a federal lawsuit that her civil rights were violated when she was ordered to remove a political sign.

The settlement, which included attorney fees and was signed in December, also requires the city to change its ordinances to exempt political signs from regulation.

Dianne Rogge put a sign in the window of the former Pour Haus tavern building at 1924-26 W. Main St. that stated, "No TIF for us, Tks B'ville," after the city tabled her request for $15,000 in tax increment financing incentives to redo the inside of the bar.

The city asked Rogge in June to follow city code and get approval for size and other regulations, remove the message or face a $500-per-day fine.

Rogge said the city cited her for the political statement because she supported current Mayor Mark Eckert's opponent, Phil Elmore, in the April 2013 election.

In August, attorney Eric Rhein filed a 20-page complaint against the city, and city employees Bob Sabo and Paul Bauman, on Rogge's behalf.

The lawsuit states that the city's sign ordinance is unconstitutional and sought compensation of $50,000.

In recent months, Rogge has removed the sign about TIF, and another sign that stated "Dianne Rogge for mayor 2017," from the storefront.

The city and Rogge and Mike Buettner, the other property owner, cannot discuss the settlement because of a confidentiality clause, but the Belleville News-Democrat obtained a copy of the settlement agreement through the Freedom of Information Act.

According to the settlement agreement:

* The city does not admit any fault, liability or wrongdoing.

* Rogge agrees to dismiss with prejudice her pending claims against the city.

* Rogge agrees to drop her claims against Sabo and Bauman, leaving the city as the sole defendant.

* The city agrees to withdraw all pending citations against Rogge for posting the sign.

* The city also agrees to revise its sign code to meet constitutional standards.

On Feb. 17, the City Council changed the city's sign code ordinance to say that political campaign signs and political message signs are exempt.

Non-exempt signs require a sign permit and a fee of 50 cents per square foot. The fee is at least $15 if the sign is less than a square-foot.

The two types of graphics that are exempt are political message signs "that express a noncommercial message regarding an issue of political or public concern" and campaign signs that announce or support political candidates or issues in any national, state or local election.

The signs can be for a specific person or a position on a ballot question that has been certified by the Illinois Election Code, the ordinance states.

City Attorney Garrett Hoerner, commenting on the sign code amendment, said: "The city has been treating the political signs as exempt anyway, pursuant to case law. All we did is memorialize what was in practice in the city."

Eckert said the city will continue to prohibit campaign signs in the public right of way and on city property, and remove signs for safety reasons -- like when they obstruct a driver's view -- as was past practice.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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