September 2007 Highlights

September saw debate continue on some quality-of-life and public safety issues which have proven resistant to easy solutions:  street-side electronic signs, and nightclub safety problems.
 
Electronic signage restrictions debated, final vote coming:     Restrictions on the flashing, spinning, blinking distractions of street-side "electronic message boards" were included in the updated on-premises sign ordinance rules adopted by the City Council in May.  The new rules also limited how quickly these electronic signs could change their messages.
     The purpose of this change-rate restriction, together with the prohibition on flashing, blinking, and other "transition effects" on these signs, is twofold:

  • reduce the traffic safety hazard caused by driver distraction (while watching the changing sign messages); and
  • improve community appearance by reducing the visual clutter associated with roadside signage.

Following the May vote, however, new questions were raised regarding whether the city could legally defend the distinction between categories of signs which would be allowed to change every eight seconds, and those which could only change every two minutes.  In order to resolve that legal question, the City Council during August and September sent two different alternatives back to the Planning Board for public hearing and discussion.

One alternative would eliminate the two-tiered restriction altogether, compromising at a uniform maximum change rate of once every minute.  (That alternative was my personal favorite.)

The other would set a two-hour maximum change rate for all new signs (which I also like), but allow existing electronic signs a 15-year "grandfather" period during which they can change as quickly as once every eight seconds.  Personally, I don't especially like that part of the rule—it allows changes too rapid for us to be confident that it deals with the driver-distraction problem—but it's better than nothing and would apply to only the existing signs (about 33 total around the city).  It would at least eliminate the flashing and spinning "transitional effects" as well.

Throughout the process, the signage industry has persistently argued against any meaningful restrictions, and they continue to do so.  Their latest proposal would apply the weak eight-second change rate restrictions to new signs, and leave existing electronic signs completely unrestricted.  I consider that proposal completely unacceptable from both a public safety and a community appearance basis.

The final public hearing on this issue takes place at the City Council meeting October 1 (tomorrow at the time this update is sent to you).  Interested citizens are welcome to attend and comment.  The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, and this item is presently scheduled fairly late in the agenda.  My present expectation is that I will support the eight second existing signs/two hour new signs compromise on the change rate issue, as a tolerable compromise between the interests of sign owners and those of the broader city community.
 
Nightclub safety issues won't go away:     The slow process of developing a nightclub regulation ordinance continued in September.  The Public Safety Committee of the City Council was presented with a draft ordinance which incorporated a number of significant changes in response to concerns raised by nightclub owners and patrons.  The committee discussed the draft, but a majority of the committee decided that it was not ready for consideration by the full council.  Instead, the item was held over for further discussion to be scheduled for the committee's December meeting.  In the meantime, the Police Department is to convene a training session for its "violence reduction program" for nightclub owners and employees.  I was disappointed in the delay to December, but I understand that it is the reasonable prerogative of the committee members to determine that the ordinance was not ready for a vote.

I have concluded that there is a need for additional regulatory oversight of nightclub operations in the city.  An exclusively voluntary approach will not work, because most of the clubs—including those which will participate in the voluntary program—are not the source of the problems.  The small number of locations which experience repeated serious violent incidents are the ones over which the city needs additional regulatory authority, and they are the ones least likely to participate effectively in the voluntary program.  I anticipate returning to the December committee meeting with the renewed request that the committee send the nightclub regulation ordinance forward to the full City Council for consideration.

In the meantime, there have been further developments in the case of the Red Rooster club, in whose parking area Winston-Salem Police Sgt. Howard Plouff was fatally wounded in February.  The city's legal efforts to close that nightclub location as a "public nuisance" continue in court, without resolution at this point.  As of late September, the Red Rooster club itself has closed.  However, the attorney for the club's owner has indicated that it is his client's intention to re-open under another name.  Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to resolve the problem.  Two previous nightclubs at the same location have also experienced serious incidents of violence and other problems.  It is the city's intention to continue with the nuisance-abatement lawsuit seeking a permanent closure of that location as a nightclub.

In my view, the delays, expense and uncertainty of the legal case against the Red Rooster underscore the city's need for a new regulatory ordinance.  The new ordinance would have clearer standards and a more streamlined legal process for revocation of the business license for a nightclub which is experiencing such severe safety problems.