The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 12, 2013

Ashtabula loses lawsuit over signage ordinance

City must pay Committee to Elect Kathy Magda $5,212

Star Beacon

ASHTABULA — A candidate for county treasurer has won a federal lawsuit against the City of Ashtabula, alleging the city’s former temporary signage ordinance was unconstitutional.

Cincinnati attorney, Christopher P. Finney, filed the lawsuit on Aug. 2 in Ohio Northern District Court on behalf of the Committee to Elect Kathy Magda, who was running, and in November, lost her bid for Ashtabula County treasurer.

City Manager James Timonere said his legal problems with Magda started on July 18 when, as city manager, he sent all of the candidates a letter making them aware of the city’s policies on political signs. Those policies included a permit fee of $25, as well as time limits on when the signs can be displayed.

“Almost every other candidate came in and complied,”  Timonere said. “(The Magdas) never called, never said anything. Then, here comes a lawyer, suing the city.”

City Council unanimously repealed the ordinance Aug. 6.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent awarded fees and expenses to the Magdas in the amount of $5,212, attorneys’ fees in the amount of $4,862, and court costs in the amount of $350, according to the suit.

The award was much lower than the $26,886 in attorney costs Finney requested in the lawsuit.

In his order, the judge explained: “The city took action to assure the Magdas that it would not enforce the ordinance and amended the ordinance within days — it is likely the issues could have been resolved quickly and efficiently without any need for litigation had the Magdas or their attorney contacted the city prior to the suit.”

On Friday, Kathy Magda said, “It should have been done a long time ago.” She also said her attorney also represented the group who objected to the traffic enforcement cameras in the City of Ashtabula.

“He’s here to help the people,” she said.

Steve Magda has said the city has known the sign ordinance was unconstitutional for 10 years.

Citing the First Amendment, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled in 2000 that a city law requiring the removal of political signs within a certain period of time, such as the city required, was unconstitutional as applied to the posting of such signs on private property. In other words, the city can not put limits on how early a sign can be erected before an election.

A city may regulate size, shape and location, however.

Ashtabula City Solicitor Michael Franklin said he’s “not happy about paying the Magda’s attorney anything, but this opinion is very important to the city because the city is given credit for acting promptly and in good faith.”