The Dalles Missy Dunagan said if a citizen is going to be threatened with arrest or hauled into court to fight payment of a large fine, it should be for some type of offense greater than posting a yard sale sign.
“I think it’s ridiculous, I think they [city officials] need their jobs investigated for misuse of power,” she said.
Dunagan decided to speak publicly about her experiences after learning from a July 31 story in The Chronicle that she and husband, Michael, were the first subjects to be taken to municipal court for the offense. Although their names were kept confidential in that story, Missy said comments given by city attorney Gene Parker made it appear they were repeat offenders and had not heeded prior warnings.
“We have lived here for almost 20 years and I can only recall having one other sale and putting up signs,” she said. “We never received any warning for the one we had in April, someone left several of our signs on the front porch but there was no note with them and we never received a letter.”
Parker confirmed Thursday that the Dunagans were not issued a warning letter before enforcement action was initiated. He said theirs was the first case pursued because having signs tacked on seven utility poles seemed like a “flagrant” violation of the nuisance code that needed to be dealt with.
Dunagan said the couple’s first awareness that they were in trouble came after they read the message April 23 that was written on the back of a business card they picked up off the front door mat.
The message by The Dalles Police Officer Jeff Kienlen read: “There are citations for code enforcement that need to be given to you or a warrant for your arrest will be coming soon. Please come to the station soon.”
Missy said she was in shock after reading those words. “I felt all kinds of things, I was so stressed out. I kept asking, ‘What the hell could we have done?’”
Michael hurried to the downtown police station to comply with Kienlen’s directive. He then learned that he and Missy were being cited for nailing signs April 17 to utility poles at seven different street corners.
“I don’t do garage sales very often, but I was going after this one full force and we ended up not holding it on the weekend because it was so windy that the signs kept blowing down,” said Missy. “We finally decided to put them up on Monday [April 15] and keep going until everything was gone.”
The Dunagans said they did not know it was a violation of city code to post signs on utility poles or stop signs. They had heard about the controversy over the city’s stance that signs not be affixed to cardboard boxes left near street corners and tried to avoid doing so.
They were told by Judge Tom Peachey during their May 8 bench trial that ignorance of the law was no excuse, although he took the time to coach them through the process of questioning city witnesses.
“He was really nice to us and helped out a lot because we didn’t know what to do,” said Missy.
At the onset of the hearing, Peachey told the Dunagans that the fine for violating the nuisance ordinance could be up to $500 if they were convicted.
They had come to the trial expecting to fight the high fine they say Kevin Hashizume, the contract prosecutor for the city, told them could be levied at their April 30 arraignment.
“We were told that we each could be fined $750 per sign for each location and each of the three days they were up,” said Missy. Using that figure, the total could have been about $30,000.
Hashizume was unable to be reached for comment.
Parker said it would have to be a case with very aggravated circumstances to ever warrant such a high penalty, and he did not think that was likely to occur.
“That would be a drastic remedy and one that I don’t think we would ever use,” he said.
Although Missy freely admitted to posting the signs at the initial court visit, she adopted the stance “prove I did it” by the second hearing because of the amount of money involved.
Peachey exonerated the Dunagans after one hour of testimony from city and PUD officials because he said there was no evidence in the court record to prove they were the ones who had posted the signs.
Dunagan believes the judge factored other problems with the city’s case into his ruling. She said the listed sign locations did not match on two different court documents, the signs brought to court didn’t match the pictures submitted as evidence, and there was confusion over the time the pictures of the signs were taken .
In addition, the Dunagans protested to Peachey that they were notified of only one citizen complaint about their signs but Parker’s was added at the trial, leaving them no time to factor it into their defense.
“To be treated like a criminal for something like this is just outrageous,” Missy said.
Parker said the job of city staffers is to enforce the policies set by the elected council. He said different violations fall under different codes and signs are dealt with in both the nuisance and land-use ordinances.
He said the city once discussed putting up low walls within the public right-of-way at street corners so that people could put signs there instead of on boxes or vehicles, which is also prohibited. But the potential liability of having drivers distracted by trying to read the signs and possibly getting into wrecks led officials to abandon the idea.
Instead, the city has erected community signboards at St. Vincent DePaul, The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce and Mid-Columbia Senior Center. Although these are not as convenient as a roadside sign, Parker said they are an alternative that can eliminate the problem with trash and visual clutter.
Parker confirmed that it is still unlawful in The Dalles to put up a directional sign for a yard or garage sale on a neighboring property, a source of contention during a discussion of regulations in 2012. However, he said there has been no enforcement action taken for these infractions.
Former Mayor Jim Wilcox started the debate out of the belief that having “unsightly” signs in visible locations that later became trash was a deterrent to economic development. At that time, the council directed Parker to strengthen the penalties for littering so the city could take action against people who did not remove their signs in a timely manner.