by BRAD ROLLINS
A county court-at-law judge this afternoon found a Hays County activist guilty of violating the city of Dripping Springs’ sign ordinance in a charge stemming from his protest of a residential subdivision.
Charles O’Dell, who started and operates the Hays Community Action Network, was found guilty in the city’s municipal court of violating the ordinance, which does not regulate hand-held signs but prohibits free-standing signs in public right-of-ways. O’Dell appealed the ruling. (Also in municipal court, he was found not guilty on two similar charges, which had been condensed from an original 11 alleged violations of the law.)
Visiting Judge Fred Moore took little more than 10 minutes before reaching his verdict and levied a $500 fine. O’Dell said in an e-mail to supporters before the trial that the criminal charges were politically motivated and suggested he would contest a guilty verdict on constitutional grounds.
“My actions did not violate the City sign ordinances, but if they did then that provision of the sign ordinance is unconstitutional. There are those in Hays County and elsewhere who oppose the work of HaysCAN and stand to benefit if my appeal fails,” O’Dell wrote.
But Dripping Springs city attorney Ryan Kellus Turner said during his closing statement that the case was not about the message of O’Dell’s demonstration at the Belterra subdivision’s entrance on February 10, 2007 against a developer’s application to discharge wastewater effluent into Bear Creek. The city of Dripping Springs, as well as Hays County, are opposed to Belterra’s pending application for a discharge permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“The city of Dripping Springs does not regulate sign content — just height, size and location of signs,” Turner said. “This is a gentleman who feels very passionately about protecting the watershed. So does the city of Dripping Springs … [but] this is a question of the rule of law.”
A deputy constable testified that he served O’Dell with notice of a criminal complaint from another alleged sign violation at O’Dell’s home a day earlier. City administrator Michelle Fisher said that her office had previously provided O’Dell with a copy of the ordinance at his request. And the city also introduced into evidence an e-mail written by O’Dell in which he advised supporters that the Belterra protest did not violate the sign ordinance as long as the signs were held by a person, and not erected.
The evidence shows that O’Dell knew he was violating the law, Turner said, “but what happened is no one else showed up to the protest and he had to put the signs up instead of holding them.”
O’Dell was represented by Austin attorney Gerry Morris, who did not call witnesses, question the city’s witnesses or otherwise present evidence. Instead, he argued that the city had not proved O’Dell was the one who erected the sign in question or that the sign was in the right-of-way.
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