Hoping to enlist the help of a state-level advocacy group, two Lake Travis area cities have begun a process to repeal a Texas law that could prove problematic if not corrected soon.
“The current statute in the [Texas] Local Government Code that talks about political signs, we believe is in conflict with some recent case law that was decided by the Supreme Court,” West Lake Hills City Administrator Robert Wood said. “So, we’re asking the state to remove that section so that conflict doesn’t exist.”
Wood said it’s not possible for a Texas city today to write a sign ordinance that complies with both the state law and the federal case law that has recently come out.
The federal case law Wood referenced is the 2015 Supreme Court decision Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which holds that any distinction in treatment of different types of noncommercial signs based on message, including political signs, is unconstitutional for almost any purpose.
In other words, the federal ruling states that signs may be regulated, but regulations are limited to physical characteristics, location and duration of the sign, not the content.
The state law Wood referenced is section 216.903 of the Texas Local Government Code, which requires Texas cities to regulate political signs differently than all other signs.
These two laws are in direct opposition, Wood said. Because of that, the West Lake Hills City Council on Aug. 29 adopted a resolution asking the Texas Municipal League to include in its upcoming legislative agenda language that would clean up the state statute so it doesn’t conflict with federal law.
The City of Bee Cave followed suit, and during its Sept. 25 City Council meeting passed a similar resolution within its city code.
Bee Cave City Manager Clint Garza said that the passed resolution basically means that the city is joining with West Lake Hills in its request that TML support legislation to repeal the conflicting Texas code.
“It will go to TML, and then TML will decide if it wants to support legislation,” Garza said.
The TML is a group that, among other initiatives, handles legislative advocacy on behalf of Texas cities. TML Executive Director Bennett Sandlin said that the resolutions submitted by West Lake Hills and Bee Cave will be considered at its annual conference in Fort Worth in October.
He added that, although they are the only two cities so far that have submitted resolutions to the TML, he has heard that other cities are starting to show interest on the issue based on the West Lake Hills and Bee Cave ordinances.
Officials in the City of Lakeway have spent the past several months amending the city's sign ordinance to comply with the Reed v. Gilbert ruling and brought the item before City Council at its Sept. 17 meeting.
Following the public comment period, the council discussed the amended ordinance in executive session. The council ultimately tabled approval of the agenda item so the city attorney could further review the various sections discussed.
Sandlin said he can’t speculate on whether or not the resolutions will pass the body’s three-step process for adoption, but if they do they will then become part of the TML’s written legislative program.
“And that will guide our efforts come the 2019 Texas Legislature,” Bennett said. “And, of course we’ll have to find a sponsor, and it’s not a guarantee that anybody would file the bill, but we’ll do our best to make sure that that passed.”
Beyond the TML accepting and supporting the resolutions, Bennett said he is not sure if the state Legislature would repeal the law. The state law is clearly unconstitutional at this point, he said, but it’s difficult to predict what side lawmakers will fall on.
West Lake Hills updated its sign code to comply with the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, and Woods said that the request for TML to help repeal the Texas law is a preemptive move. So far, he said, there have not been any issues, and setting up this process could help ensure there will not be any moving forward.
“We’ve got this conflict, and we see the best way of eliminating the conflict as repealing the state’s specific statute that deals with political signs since our attorney’s interpretation of the case law is that that’s no longer allowed,” Wood said. “We’re just trying to see if the state will help resolve the conflict.”