Some Policy Considerations For Sign Legislation – Experts and the Public

Part 5 of a series

By Dr. R. J. Claus

Given the range of technicalities mentioned in this series as relevant to problems of sign control, one may think the most efficient path to valid control is to rely solely on the planners. Nothing would please the professionals more. But the cities primarily belong to the citizens who pay the taxes and who live there. Therefore, all people affected by the decisions of planners should responsibly ask common-sense questions about the claims which are the basis of significant decisions. Some professionals simply believe their opinion is more valid than the opinions of nonprofessionals. Some groups of educated people believe their tastes should determine what the people’s city should look like.

One can reasonably expect an expert to explain how he reached his conclusions. A mode of research emerging among groups of planners is called “systematic.” This means they’re aware of procedures that will free them from having to depend on the opinion of another planner or architect to support their views. As a result, the interested citizen should be able to play devil’s advocate, as it were, without upsetting the facts that the planner is using.

To illustrate how an outside opinion could have been helpful, we might refer to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act. The purpose of the Act, as recorded in the Congressional Record, was to protect certain scenic areas — an explicit attempt to preserve the rural and bucolic characteristics of particular areas.

Interference arose when billboards were discovered on some of the sites designated for protection. Government experts decided the way to eliminate billboards entirely was to require that they be set back from the highways by 660 feet. Such a decision could not have been made if one had any inkling of principles of visual communication. By simply changing the density, intensity or hue of a graphic message, one can create a display that is striking even from that distance. Also, there is a tendency for the eye to compensate for differences in distance by giving some “meaning,” in terms of size, to objects viewed in vastly different contexts. Thus, if one focuses on the dials on the dash of his car, and suddenly notices a distinct billboard in an indistinct view of forest, it is natural that the billboard is, to the eye, virtually inside the car. The setback of 660 feet completely failed to account for this phenomenon.

Because billboards will be the target of attack from many groups, city officials should have an historical perspective on their use. During the World Wars, the government actively encouraged billboards use, because they encouraged industrial growth. The trend has now changed, and billboards are temporarily in disfavor with some people who find them aesthetically displeasing. This hardly seems a substantial argument for denying the sign manufacturer the right to meet the needs of his customers for efficient and economical advertising.

Giving permanence to a temporary, culturally conditioned preference is perennial, and recognized in cities in the remote past. However, an underlying question is thoroughly modern. To what degree are city officials obliged to submit to the advice of a technocratic city planner? This is a serious ethical question, as anyone in public office ( municipal or national) will attest. The question is somewhat less formidable if one examines the relation of the expert to society.

First, assume the advisor is scientifically honest. Assume he will not limit his awareness to discoveries he wishes to believe, or which support his own personal views. Equally basic is the assumption of his competence, that he is well trained and also acutely sensitive to new developments and research in his discipline. Because the advisor is an expert, as well as a professional, one expects him to separate his personal biases from the decisions he makes professionally.

To illustrate the difference between expertise and professionalism, use the analogy of a critic’s relation to a scholar. A critic has enough technical proficiency to have sophisticated opinions as to why he especially likes or dislikes a particular book (play, painting, statue). The scholar has his opinions, of course, but will be careful in his comments to differentiate these from documented evidence. The special case of the planner — the land-use regulator whose advice will affect many persons’ lives — demands a professional of highest caliber and integrity. He must understand his place in terms of honesty and detachment.

One important service available from a competent planner is the reporting of research findings. This means informing the citizens of how studies in various places are dealing with problems related to those of their own city. It doesn’t mean giving an unsolicited evaluation of various researchers; it doesn’t mean doing a desultory survey; it doesn’t mean being selective in reporting what one finds. Naturally, the planner will not agree with all that he uncovers, but it’s his responsibility to report it nevertheless.

The planner who interprets his role perversely can be insidiously manipulative. By investing in a truncated land-use scheme, he can find supporters for his cause. This doesn’t require eloquence or even powers of persuasion. If the city’s only source of information would warp his findings, he can incline people’s judgment in a particular direction. For instance, this precisely describers the issue of controlling billboards. Few city councils are properly informed because most planners will not allow them the luxury of seeing the true state of current research.

Rampant in some circles of “experts” is that the planner’s technical knowhow suggests he also knows what “the people” want and need better than they know themselves. Therefore, he is justified in manipulating data in any way to further his point of view. Recently, in a city in northern California, a planner was correctly accused of dishonesty. A junior member of his staff was claiming authorship of an ordinance that he had plagiarized from the code used in another city. The senior planner did not disavow his colleague’s tactics. He asserted, regardless of the legislation’s source, he was doing a great service to the municipality that employed him. In effect, he was claiming that, for uninformed laymen, a mendacious expert is preferable to none at all.

No one is naive enough to suppose this instance is unique. But how can measures against dishonest planners be enforced that will be appropriate to the deceit which they practice? Cases of proven dishonesty are sometimes complicated by the objection that planners who holds a tenured office are morally above reproach because his position can’t be placed in jeopardy by anything that he discovers in doing research. Experience proves this false.

As a first step, perhaps a professional organization could adopt a code of ethics that explicitly makes certain offenses, such as tampering with data, grounds for being ostracized from the community of professional planners. To condone such abuses would make any serious, conscientious planner livid with rage.

Further, conceivably, the government become involved in these cases. It’s indeed a public scandal for municipal funds to be used for projects whose bases are fallacious. In sign and billboard control, for instance, a case possibly could be made for conspiracy. Because the ultimate intent of banning billboards is to steal an individual’s property, the act of justifying that intent by false data is surely conspiratorial. Logically and legally, to pass off false data as fact is perjury.

We don’t mean to discourage the official who hopes to participate in sign and/or billboard control programs. We hope to have pointed out that the responsible official must be continually evaluating the philosophical and legal implications of various programs. He must also keep aware of the source of information being marshalled by various interest groups. It will, at times, be necessary to consult the people most aware of the realistic problems in sign control — even if those people happen to be affiliated with the sign industry.


Photo by David Evers

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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