Visitors view artists’ banners during an Arts Alive reception in February. The backs of the banners feature a tribute to the late Maggie Houlihan. BILL WECHTER | [email protected]

The City Council is expected to debate Wednesday whether to lift a restriction that blocks artist-created banners along Coast Highway 101 from displaying a picture of former Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan.

April 8, 2012
by Barbara Henry

The debate, which is expected to occur in a closed-to-the-public session immediately before the council’s regular 6 p.m. meeting — is scheduled to come several days after a deadline set by Houlihan’s husband, Ian Thompson.

However, Thompson’s attorney Livia Borak said Friday morning that her client is prepared to wait until after the Wednesday session before deciding whether to file a lawsuit against the city.

“In the spirit of cooperation … we’re going to wait and see what happens,” said Borak, of Coast Law Group.

Thompson and his attorney have argued that the city is violating the U.S. Constitution by preventing the arts banners from containing a memorial message for Houlihan, who died in September after a five-year battle with cancer.

City officials have said that if the banners contain the memorial message, then they violate city policies regarding the use of city-owned light poles.

The conflict began late last fall when project organizers decided not to put their annual advertisement for the banner auction on the back of this year’s banners. Instead, they decided to honor Houlihan, who had been a strong supporter of the banner program, by putting her picture and a memorial message on the backs of the banners. They failed to inform the city of this change.

After the banners were printed and opponents of the Houlihan memorial message surfaced, city officials said they wouldn’t issue a sign permit allowing the group to fly the banners on the city’s light poles.

Mayor Jerome Stocks has said that it would go against city policy to display a “political likeness” on city-owned light poles, while Deputy City Manager Richard Phillips has said that under city policy, the light pole display space can only go to nonprofits advertising special events that are open to anyone in the community.

The banners are already up on the light poles downtown; they’ve been on display since February. But the Houlihan picture is covered by a vinyl sticker, which project organizers decided to use after learning that they couldn’t obtain a city sign permit if Houlihan’s image appeared on the banners.

On Friday, Thompson said he was willing to wait until Wednesday for the council’s decision, but said he wasn’t optimistic that a majority of the council would vote to lift the restriction. He said that it was evident the council wasn’t taking the issue seriously because members hadn’t agreed to discuss the issue before his April 6 deadline.

However, the mayor said Friday that he wanted to hold the discussion in a special council session a week earlier but couldn’t do so because of the Easter holiday.

“We didn’t have a quorum —- everybody was out of town,” Stocks said.

Call staff writer Barbara Henry at 760-901-4072