Council likely to put brakes on ban of car-sale signs Fate of law will be decided next month

February 19, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County residents likely will gain a freedom long enjoyed by everybody else in the Baltimore area: the right to sell a used car on the street.

A county law that banned for-sale signs on cars parked on public streets was rejected in November by a judge in Howard District Court. The judge dismissed the case against an irate citizen challenging two tickets.

Now county officials have gone from defending the law to calling for its repeal -- and some have even begun wondering where the idea for the law came from.

"In exploring it, it wasn't really clear why it was there or whether anybody needed it," said County Solicitor Barbara Cook.

The County Council had a public hearing last night on the car-sales law and a proposed contract with county firefighters. Votes on both issues are scheduled for the council's March 3 meeting.

No would-be street-side car seller spoke at the hearing. Even Philip Marcus -- the former lawyer who battled the law in District Court after being ticketed -- skipped the hearing.

But after the meeting, the five council members expressed feelings ranging from apathy to antipathy over the sales-sign ban. Its repeal is almost certain.

"It's less government," said Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican.

And Feaga has a rare ally on the issue, Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who said, "I didn't think it made any sense. I'm glad they're deleting that."

The issue arose last April, when Howard County police gave Marcus, a software designer, a $24 ticket for having a for-sale sign in the window of his 1993 Nissan Sentra, parked on the street near his Ellicott City home.

In protest, Marcus put another sign in his car. "Because of a stupid and probably unconstitutional Howard County ordinance," the second sign said, "I can't tell you whether this car is for sale."

To casual observers, only the words "for sale" were large enough to read clearly.

The police were not amused, and gave Marcus a second $24 ticket.

But at his trial, Judge R. Russell Sadler chuckled at the sign, then agreed with Marcus' claim that the law was an unconstitutional breach of free speech.

At the time, Assistant County Solicitor F. Todd Taylor defended the county's right to regulate street-side car sales and warned that used-car dealers might move their merchandise onto the roads.

But later, as county officials worked to rewrite an entire section of outdated ordinances -- which by chance included the ban -- they decided to delete it, they said.

Marcus "did bring it to our attention," said Cook, the county solicitor, but "we probably would have pulled it anyway."

Marcus was not available for comment last night as he appeared near a total victory over the law, but he issued a news release declaring, "I support the repeal and believe the citizens and visitors to Howard County will breathe a little easier without such an unneeded and unconstitutional law."

Also last night, firefighters and administration officials publicly endorsed the three-year contract they recently signed.

Several members of the County Council have questioned a contract provision changing the amount of service needed for retirement from 25 years to 20 years. That issue is scheduled for debate at future meetings.

At an informal meeting before the public hearing, the Association of Community Services of Howard County urged council members not to forget social services when developing next year's budget.

"I know what this is," said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican. "You all want more money. So does everybody else."

Andrea Ingram, president of the association, replied, "We just want to be sure that while we're all standing in line, human services has its appropriate place in line."

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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