A disagreement between Carthage's mayor, the city council and historic preservation advocates in Carthage over procedures has left a historic church in limbo over whether it can install a new electronic sign in front of its building.
The Carthage City Council voted on Tuesday to reverse a decision by the city's Planning, Zoning and Historic Preservation Commission to allow Grace Episcopal Church, 820 Howard St., to install an electronic sign in front of its building.
Carthage City Council members and Ron Petersen Jr., a member of the Commission and a member of Carthage Historic Preservation, said the city didn't follow proper procedures when Mayor Mike Harris asked the commission's chairman, former mayor Harry Rogers, to have the commission reconsider, at its September meeting, an August vote denying the church's request.
Petersen spoke at the beginning of Tuesday's council meeting, during the public comment period.
Petersen said the commission considered Grace Episcopal's request at its meeting in August and denied the request by a 3-1 vote.
Petersen said the item was put back on the agenda at the commission's September meeting, and some commission members who had not attended some meetings, including the one in August, were present.
After a long discussion, the new vote was 3-2 to allow the request.
He said the church should have been instructed to appeal the Commission's decision to the full City Council, as laid out in city ordinances.
“It is my opinion that the second vote is invalid since the commission voted to deny it a month earlier,” Petersen said. “There is concern about how our city government handles its affairs and hijacking planning and zoning commission does not instill confidence in the people.”
Petersen said he understood that the request to reconsider came from Mayor Harris and City Administrator Tom Short, but Harris said he alone asked Commission Chairman Rogers to reconsider the request.
At the end of the meeting Council Member Ed Hardesty made a motion, which was seconded by Council Member Lee Carlson, to reverse the Commission's vote. Hardesty's motion passed on a voice vote, with Kirby Newport, a member of Grace Church, abstaining.
Rogers, in a telephone interview with The Press after Tuesday's meeting, said he saw nothing wrong with Harris' request to reconsider the decision, but would abide by any decision the Council makes.
Harris said he asked the Commission to take a second look because he didn't feel the church was given a fair chance to make its case at the August meeting. He said Father Steve Wilson, pastor of the church, was told he wouldn't have to attend the meeting.
Rogers said the commission initially denied the request because it had unanswered questions and the staff didn't have the answers the commission felt it needed. Rogers said his was the lone vote to allow the sign at that August meeting.
Page 2 of 2 - “We simply tried to act in accordance with the Mayor's wishes that we revisit the decision,” Rogers said “Last night, Father Steve made some rational and reasonable arguments for the request and Planning and Zoning voted for the motion to allow the sign.”
The Council's Tuesday decision remains in limbo while City Attorney Nate Dally reviews the ordinance to see whether the Council can reverse a Planning, Zoning and Historic Preservation decision that has not been appealed. Dally said he will likely have an opinion sometime today (Wednesday).
Wilson said the church will abide by the rules, but the controversy points out the lack of clear rules and regulations on signs within and outside the historic district.
“The rules are pretty vague and not well defined,” he said after hearing about Tuesday's decision. “I think it highlights the need to get a solid code as far as signs are concerned. Grace Church will play by the rules, it has since 1869, but frankly, the rules here are unclear and we look forward to finding out what the applicable code is and proceed from there.”