March 29, 2012
by Wehtahnah Tucker

Ian Thompson, the husband of late Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan, addresses the City Council March 28, demanding that the city remove the material masking his late wife’s image from the Arts Alive banners. Photo by Wehtahnah Tucker

ENCINITAS — The city is violating the first amendment by masking the image of late Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan on the backs of banners hung on lampposts as part of the Arts Alive program, Encinitas resident and Houlihan’s widower Ian Thompson told the council Wednesday.“You’ve used the legal premise that per the city code, images of politicians are prohibited from appearing on banners that hang on city property,” said Thompson.

Organizers of the Arts Alive banner program, a decades-old tradition where local artists create works of art on banners to hang on street side lampposts and later auction off, sought to display a likeness of Houlihan, on the backs of the banners only to be denied by City Manager Gus Vina during the permitting process. The banners received the necessary permits after organizers decided to place a blue vinyl sticker over Houlihan’s image, which could be removed once the banners came down.

In letters to the council from the Coast Law Group and the ACLU, attorneys argued that the decision amounts to “viewpoint” decision-making and is a violation of the first amendment; both letters cite numerous legal precedence.

The city code that Vina referenced in the decision to cover the image reads, “Said banners are for civic and non-profit, city wide recognized special events.” Vina has said that the image of a political figure would not fit within that language.

“Council majority, Encinitas is now under observation by the ACLU for a violation of the first amendment,” Thompson said. “In case you’ve forgotten, the first amendment pertains to every American and prevents the government, and I quote ‘abridging our freedom of speech.’”

Thompson said the council had a deadline of April 6 to remove the coverings that hide Houlihan’s image. He said outside of council chambers that if the council doesn’t comply “it will be sending a clear statement to the citizens of Encinitas that the will of the council majority supersedes the constitution of the United States.”

Deputy Mayor Kristin Gaspar asked Vina, after several additional speakers supported Thompson’s call to action, whether the council voted to have the image covered. While the answer was “no,” Thompson said that was a ruse. “I think her question was disingenuous and well rehearsed,” Thompson said later. “(The decision) didn’t need a vote of the council. They are the managers of this city.”

Voicing the frustration of more than a few residents in the room, one resident called for conciliation.

“Rather than government of the people, for the people, by the people it is government of special interests, for special interests, by special interests,” Gerald Sadomka told the council. “How about all of us working together for good government?”

Livia Borak, an attorney at Coast Law Group, representing Thompson, spoke at the end of the four-hour meeting. She noted that the city manager works for the city council. “This decision was viewpoint based,” she said. “These rules cannot be made on the spot, they simply cannot.”

“It’s shameful that you would try to marginalize and detract from the legacy of a woman who made so many contributions in so many ways to this community, especially in death when she is no longer able to defend herself,” Thompson told the council.

In May all of the banners will be made available for auction.