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Eager to illuminate his First Amendment rights

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Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 05:00 PM
LAND O' LAKES -

Jeff Griffin is, by his own admission, impatient with the glacial pace of the unfolding political season. On every front — business owner, ranch manager, family man and Republican activist — Griffin is bristling for engagement.

That said, more than edginess was at work a couple of weeks ago, when Griffin managed to get himself in trouble with Pasco County's code compliance department.

Yes, to catch the attention of motorists traveling State Road 52, he'd parked a portable message board on the front yard of Fairhaven Farm. And, yes, the board, about the dimensions of a standard plywood plank, delivered, in three-second LED bursts, Griffin's preferences for the coming election campaign.

Beyond the endorsements, however, Griffin hoped the medium would become the message. He and Kostas Ktiskakis, 54, an engineer experienced in the manufacture of LED (light-emitting diode) signs, are keen to launch a Pasco-based version of the enterprise they say would employ 500 or more skilled craftsmen.

The salaries they would earn, Ktiskakis says, would be more than enough to begin eating into the county's staggering backlog of foreclosed houses.

Alas, it's the medium that got him into trouble. Now he says he's in the market for a lawyer willing to advance a ferocious argument that the county is trampling on his First Amendment rights.

At issue is the county's sign ordinance, adopted in 2002, prohibiting "activated signs" and "vehicle signs." Griffin's, plainly, violated — violates, actually; all he's done is back it off the road — both. It flashes and rides on boat-trailer tires. And, not long after it was switched on, it snared the attention of David A. Goldstein, Pasco's chief assistant county attorney.

At first glance, Goldstein says, he thought it had been placed by DOT or law enforcement, warning of an accident or road work. When he saw otherwise, he made a note to alert code enforcement.

The sign's similarity to DOT message boards, suggesting a safety hazard ahead, "was my primary concern. … I assumed it was directing me about an accident or an Amber alert." Goldstein denies that his purpose was political: "Absolutely not. I don't even know who he was advertising for, or against."

Griffin responded by hauling the sign inside Fairhaven's second fence line and adding a disclaimer — "Jack Griffin endorses" — ahead of the loop of candidates he approves. That would appear to the unschooled eye to place Griffin's message firmly within the penumbra of the atmosphere in which the Occupy Wall Street movement operates: That is, assuming First Amendment privileges that trump the restraints of local ordinances.

Phillips will leave it to others above his pay grade to assess the legal merits of Griffin's amendment. For him, the relocation tactic was enough for code compliance to close the case.

Not that the controversy ends there. Jack Mariano, the two-term District 5 county commissioner who filed for re-election Tuesday — and whose name is among those flashed on Griffin's sign — argues reconsideration of the ordinance as it pertains to LED message boards is well overdue.

"The county owns signs that use LEDs," Mariano says. "DOT uses them on our rights of way. The sheriff uses them on his signs. It's OK for government but not for private businesses? This is something we need to change; I firmly believe that."

A few years ago, a Clearwater-based LED sign-maker considering relocation declined Pasco's invitation, citing, specifically, the county's prohibition against the very product it would be manufacturing.

Besides, it's not like Pasco doesn't already glimmer with sparkling LED signs. Travel any major thoroughfare and you'll see them — most grandfathered in ahead of the ordinance's adoption — making the most of limited marketing space. Mariano notes, instructively, that Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel has offered to cut its signage from the five authorized in its development plan to just two, if one is an LED message board.

"If we're talking about economic redevelopment," Mariano says, "this just makes sense. I've been saying that since I got" on the commission.

Now, with the prickly Jeff Griffin eager for new business challenges and stewing for a fight — "They put this bull's-eye on my back; I'm proud to wear it" — just may be when opportunity meets preparation.


tjackson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7068 Facebook: Tom Jackson Tampa Tribune

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