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Olson: Unusual signs not always welcome

Some of the longest, most drawn-out debates by city councils and county boards that I have witnessed in my career have been about … signs.

Signs, or as government types like to call them, “signage,” (I vow never to write that unnecessarily officious word in this column again) are a sensitive topic. Most every town and county has a sign ordinance that spells out how you can or can’t advertise your business, church services or garage sale.

These rules have often been tweaked, reviewed and updated several times to keep up with the ever-innovative advertising public. Sometimes they’re changed after someone finds that the rules allow them to put up a sign that a lot of people find unattractive.

One of my former colleagues used to tell a horror story about a city council meeting at which the city council spent more than an hour debating how large a chili pepper sign could be hung outside a new restaurant – or whether that chili pepper could even be allowed.

Why so much debate over something that can seem so trivial? Well, we count on elected officials to set policy that ensures certain parts of town look a certain way. Sycamore Road and DeKalb Avenue shouldn’t look like Times Square, but drivers need to be able to find where we’re going without having to slow down and squint, either.

Signs that make sense on Sycamore Road would ruin the look of downtown DeKalb.

Sign makers can get creative, too. They can create digital signs, signs that move, signs that display multiple messages. They can work in neon, in backlit plastic, LEDs, you name it.

Or they can just use moving mannequins, as 6th Ward Alderman David Baker had been doing outside his business, Copy Service, at 1006 W. Lincoln Highway near the Northern Illinois University campus.

Baker bought “Linda,” a moving mannequin that holds a sign and rotates. He put it outside his business for a couple of weeks in the fall, when students would be selling back textbooks. Then city officials told him the mannequin couldn’t move.

City officials say the local sign law doesn’t allow moving signs – they’re too great a distraction, the reasoning goes.

Baker thinks the restrictions on Linda’s range of motion are unfair. He even brought Linda to city hall on Monday to make his point. That night, she had a different kind of sign.

“Please support my right to free speech as protected by the U.S. Constitution!” it read. “There are no other cities in the entire county that bar my right to dance. Unlike my human counterparts, I cannot toss any signs up into the air to fall down unpredictably.”

Baker contends that the city is violating his First Amendment rights by not allowing him to have a moving mannequin sign in front of his business.

After all, he argues, we regularly see people hired to stand on street corners, sometimes in funny costumes, to advertise everything from mattress closeout sales to income-tax preparation.

City officials say those type of displays might be illegal, too – but I’d hate to see what happens when they decide to cite a local pom squad trying to raise money with a car wash.

“Linda” is unique. DeKalb is a college town, and it’s cool when people think outside the box and do things a little differently. Be creative, be bold, express yourself – I’m for it.

But what if Linda’s cousins suddenly started to crowd the city’s parkways, each mannequin with its own sign, rotating this way and that. What about signs that move in other ways? Signs that blow smoke? Signs that show tires spinning on a sports car?

You can’t make a change or an exception to the rules for one sign unless you’re willing to allow that sign or concept to be duplicated elsewhere. Although Linda herself might be harmless, a moving cityscape alive with many more of her might not be all that attractive.

There could be some middle ground, if the moving signs were required to be temporary rather than permanently installed. But a temporary sign or display might not necessarily be well-built, either.

Government can regulate commercial speech, in terms of the products that may be advertised, the locations of those advertisements, and the media that may be used to promote them.

Do you want moving billboards, signs or other devices along the public byways in DeKalb? You can make your opinion known. In response to Baker’s request (as a citizen, not an alderman) the City Council asked city staff on Monday to study the sign ordinance’s guidelines on moving signs.

Baker says he won’t vote on the issue, but that doesn’t mean he won’t lobby for his position.

“However it turns out it turns out,” Baker said. “I’m not going to go out and risk $5,000 or $10,000 to get an attorney and take it to court. ... I’ll accept whatever the outcome is.”

Maybe there’s room for rotating Linda and others of her ilk in the city. But those who would like a more lenient sign law should be warned: Even seemingly minor tweaks in a sign law can lead to drastic, sometimes unexpected changes in how a cityscape looks over time.

Dog show: Like many of you, I’m always looking for something to do with my children on weekends. Last weekend, I took my 5-year-old daughter to the dog show on Saturday afternoon at the Convocation Center at Northern Illinois University.

My first thought was that Christopher Guest got it pretty spot on with his 2000 film “Best in Show.” It’s an interesting mix of people, who have interesting ways of relating to their pets.

My second thought was how cool it was to have something like that so close by and easily accessible. The admission was free – parking cost $5 – and we could walk around and look at all the “doggies.”

When we lived closer to Chicago, I never would have gone to something like that. It would have meant a long ride in the car to get to the Allstate Arena or United Center or something, then more money for parking, etc., etc. Dogs are OK, but they’re not that important to me.

Here it was a 10-minute drive, a $5 parking fee, and we could watch all the Old English sheepdogs being painstakingly groomed, watch the Newfoundland dogs parade around, and generally gawk at all different breeds of dogs running around until my daughter’s batteries ran out. She loves dalmatians, but had never seen a shar-pei before Saturday.

If the show comes back next year and your kids like dogs, I’d say take ‘em.

No dead horses: We’ve written a lot on the election this week, and seeing how only about 1 in 5 people actually voted in it, I didn’t think I needed to beat you over the head with it here.

But there are a lot of new people coming on board in local offices around the DeKalb County.  That could be a positive – new people often bring new ideas, new vigor, and a fresh approach that can make positive change over time.

Good luck to all the new and newly re-elected local officeholders.  

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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