Sweeney Wins!

No, not an election. The perennial candidate beats Oro Valley in court.

Perennial candidate Joe Sweeney may not have triumphed in any of his congressional bids, but he's won $12,500 from Oro Valley taxpayers in legal settlements over the town's restrictive sign ordinance.

Sweeney's not the only one to win in the sign-code sweepstakes. Three other Oro Valley citizens were recently awarded $5,000, as well as roughly $21,000 to cover legal fees.

Sweeney's legal battle began after he was cited for putting up signs advertising his 1998 congressional bid in Oro Valley's public right-of-way. Sweeney sued the town, arguing the council couldn't ban political signs while allowing local developers to put up signs advertising the many subdivisions sprouting across the community.

"You can't have two systems of government up there when it comes to signs, one for developers and another for the damn commoners, who are intimidated and terrorized and have their political rights chilled," says Sweeney.

U.S. District Court Judge William Browning concurred, declaring Oro Valley's ordinance unconstitutional in September 2000.

Oro Valley officials wrote Sweeney a check for $5,000, but failed to update the town's sign code.

Sweeney, who has run for Congress 11 times since 1984, was cited again in 2000, when he began posting signs regarding his primary concern, illegal immigration. He filed another federal lawsuit, but the town recently settled the case by paying him another $7,500.

Sweeney represented himself in the case. "I've got the law school and we turn this stuff inside out all the time," he says.

Sweeney's second settlement came after the town lost a much more expensive case. Late last year, Amphi School Board member Nancy Young Wright was cited under the same sign code Browning had declared unconstitutional. Wright's offense: She was sitting at a table in an Oro Valley park collecting signatures to force a public vote on recent moves by the Oro Valley Town Council to allow more development near Honey Bee Canyon.

Wright had two 2-foot-by-2-foot signs next to her table advocating protection for Honey Bee Canyon, one of the last surviving Class 1 riparian areas in Pima County.

The officer citing Wright said the signs violated the town's codes. When Wright asked if she could put the signs on her own front yard while gathering signatures, she says the officer told her that would be illegal as well.

"That's what really got me steamed right there, telling me I couldn't do this on my own property," Wright recalls. "This is sort of Stalin revisited."

Wright, along with her husband Allen Wright and fellow activist Hector Conde, sued the town in federal court. The case ended up in front of Browning, who again ruled against the town. He awarded the plaintiffs $5,000--which Wright says just about covered the costs of the referendum campaign--and ordered the town to pay their attorneys, Bill Risner and Anthony Ching, roughly $21,000 in legal fees.

While the Wright lawsuit was pending, the Oro Valley Town Council amended the sign ordinance, allowing political signs to be erected in 10 "zones," each no more than 150 square feet.

Wright doesn't consider the new rules much of a remedy, especially since the town still has many street-side kiosks advertising new subdivisions.

"They've set up these freedom-of-speech zones, but that means to me that the rest of the town is still a censorship zone," Wright says.

Oro Valley Town Attorney Dan Dudley could not be reached for comment. Acting Town Attorney Tobin Sidles says he's not very familiar with the cases.

In related sign-code news, several local candidates have erected signs along streets in violation of Tucson's sign codes, which ban all signs in the public right-of-way. (Candidates can still put up signs in yards and at businesses with the owner's permission.)

Debra Capple, an inspection supervisor with the city's Development Services Department, informed candidates who have put up illegal signs that the city would begin taking down signs--at the candidates' expense--beginning August 1.