Issue date: March 17, 1999
By RENEE MOILANEN
Anti-abortion protester Ross Foti has waited nearly three years for this moment -- an official citation under Menlo Park's new sign ordinance.
He's even broken routine -- protesting on Friday, instead of his usual Thursday demonstration. He wants to make sure he's out on March 11, the first full day of sign ordinance enforcement.
But the day is starting off as a disappointment for Mr. Foti. He's been out in front of the Planned Parenthood Clinic on Middlefield Road for almost two hours now.
His graphic, 15-square-foot signs are clearly visible from the road. One is set up on the sidewalk, one is haphazardly attached to his car, and one he carries in his hands -- each sign violates a different section of the city's sign law.
The law, recently amended to conform with a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision, prohibits all signs on public property; bans signs not securely fastened to cars; and limits to 3-square-feet the size of signs carried by someone on public property.
Mr. Foti is suing Menlo Park, which created the law in response to his signs. But he needs a citation to go forward with legal action.
Unfortunately for Mr. Foti, the police aren't in sight. His patience is thinning.
"It's kind of ironic that they're not around," he says, looking anxiously for a squad car. "They were told not to come, or they're waiting for me to be alone, without my attorney."
The sign law will be enforced mainly by complaints, Police Chief Bruce Cumming said last week. Mr. Foti jiggles quarters in his hand. "I'm going to go call the police myself," he says.
His attorney, Catherine Short, suggests they call the sign demonstration a victory and go home. But Mr. Foti says no -- the press is here, he says, motioning to the two reporters and a photographer.
Then, around 10 a.m., two patrol cars pull up. Officers Mark Boettger and Paul Lucia are responding to a citizen's complaint about Mr. Foti's signs. Mr. Foti grabs his illegal 15-square-foot sign and rushes to meet them.
Officer Boettger tells Mr. Foti the signs are illegal and asks him to put them away. Mr. Foti refuses.
Ms. Short points to a section of the sign law which says that "licensed users or lessees of public property" are exempted from the law. Mr. Foti has a driver's license, she says. Not good enough, Officer Boettger responds.
Mr. Foti wants to know why the police are "harassing" him. He feels like he's in Communist China, not America, he tells them. "I'm just here to enforce the law and make it as pleasant as possible," Officer Boettger says. "I didn't write the law, and I'm not here to define it."
The officers again ask Mr. Foti to put away his signs, and again he refuses. "I'll take the citation," Mr. Foti says. Officer Boettger writes it up.
The citation, written like a ticket, is an infraction, says City Attorney Bill McClure. Mr. Foti can pay the $50 fine or contest it in court. If he's cited again within the year, the fine escalates -- $200 for the second, $500 for the third, and a misdemeanor for the fourth -- which could mean county jail time and $1,000.
And the signs have to go, police say. If Mr. Foti voluntarily removes the signs, Officer Boettger says, they won't be confiscated. Mr. Foti shakes his head: "I want to go all the way -- confiscate them."
Ms. Short, watching the scene from across the street, says the citation has gone smoothly so far. The police are in an awful situation, she says, "enforcing an ordinance that doesn't make sense to them."
But Officer Boettger says the law is "crystal clear." He received a copy of the new law before its enforcement and says he will "enforce it like any other city ordinance."
And the enforcement is key, Ms. Short says. "We had to determine if they were going to enforce it and how," she says. Now that they know, Ms. Short will seek a court order to block the law's enforcement until there's a full court review -- one of the first steps on the road to future legal battles with Menlo Park.
Next Thursday, Mr. Foti will still protest outside the clinic, he says, but he'll use smaller signs which conform to the law. There's no point using the big signs now -- he's got his citation, he says.
But just minutes before, as police wrote out the ticket, Mr. Foti's comments were different. "I'm disappointed," he told police. "I'm not out here for a big show -- I didn't want this to happen at all."