Lawyer Questions Constitutionality Of Fontana’s Political Sign Ordinance

The City of Fontana has passed an ordinance imposing a monetary burden on political candidates of dubious constitutionality which will have the practical effect of benefiting the city’s well-fixed incumbent officeholders and disadvantaging those seeking to unseat them, some of the city’s residents and a civil rights/free speech lawyer have opined.
Going forward, those running for elective office, either in Fontana or for local, county, statewide or national office, will need to lay out a potentially refundable $1,000 deposit if they plan to display campaign signs within Fontana’s current 42.4-square mile city limits.
According to the resolution the city council approved on May 14 in putting the ordinance in place, the city is merely “implementing a campaign sign deposit,” which “has been identified as a measure to ensure accountability among candidates and reimburses the city for costs associated with removing non-compliant campaign signs.”
In the run-up toward the passage of the ordinance, according to the city, all legal requirements for previewing and the regulation and enforcement of the policy was met when “the city council called a public hearing for March 26, 2024, for informational purposes and to receive public comments on the proposed fees. Notice of the public hearing was given by publication in a newspaper of general circulation within the city.”
According to the resolution, the fee is being imposed “for a specific government service provided directly to the payor, or for reasonable regulatory costs of the city for issuing licenses and permits, performing investigations, inspections, and administrative enforcement of the city’s municipal code or other rules or ordinances” and the fee is “no more than necessary to cover the reasonable costs of the governmental activity for which the fee is imposed” and the “manner in which those costs are allocated to a payor bear a fair or reasonable relationship to the payor’s burdens on, or benefits received from, the governmental activity for which the fee is imposed.”
According to the resolution, the ordinance became effective as of the vote to pass it on May 14, 2024. “All candidates running for local office in the city shall be required to submit a campaign sign deposit… set at $1,000.00, payable to the City of Fontana for deposit into the general fund of the city or into such special funds as may be otherwise required by law,” it states. The text of the resolution provides that the fee “must be submitted no later than the close of the nomination period in accordance with Elections Code section10220.”
Generally speaking, the nomination period – the roughly two-week period for submitting papers to run for city council or other offices such as mayor, treasurer or city clerk up for election in November – runs from early- to mid-July.
According to the resolution “the city council is committed to promoting fair, transparent, and orderly local elections.”
That is not how many of Fontana’s residents and other political observers see it.
Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren has held office in Fontana for 22 years, since she was appointed to the city council in 2002. She was elected to the council in her own right, as an incumbent, in 2004 and again in 2008. In 2010, she ran successfully for mayor. She was reelected in 2014, 2018 and 2022. A Republican, indeed as San Bernardino County’s premier African American Republican, she has been able to establish an overpowering political machine in Fontana. Early on in her political tenure, she established an alliance with Fontana City Councilman John Roberts, another Republican first elected to the council in 1992, a decade before Warren joined it. He was reelected in 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. Warren and Roberts are now, and were previously, joined on the five-member council by two other Republicans. Currently, those two Republicans are Councilman Phil Cothran, Jr. and Pete Garcia. The single Democrat on the council is Councilman Jesse Sandoval. With her ruling coalition possessing a 4-to-1 lock on council, Warren has bestridden Fontana like a political colossus for nearly a decade-and-a-half.
The Republicans Warren, Roberts, Cothran and Garcia have maintained their upper hand on the council in Fontana despite the consideration that Democrats outnumber Republicans by a significant margin in the city. At present, of the 114,104 voters in Fontana, 55,020 or 48.22 percent are registered as Democrats, while 25,155 or 22.05 percent are registered as Republicans. Those Fontana voters with no party preference are virtually equal or slightly less than the number of Republicans – 25,099 or 22 percent. The remaining 7.73 percent of the voters in Fontana are members of the American Independent, Green, Libertarian, Peace & Freedom or other more obscure political parties. That the four Republicans on the council are able to hold their positions despite being at this lopsided partisan disadvantage is a testament to the offsetting advantage their substantial political war chests provide them, which allow them to engage in polling of the electorate, to hire political consultants and to promote their candidacies using mailers, handbills, campaign signs, billboards, as well as newspaper, radio and television advertisements together with making it possible for them to engage in negative attacks on their opponents.
Warren’s control of the council’s ruling coalition has ensured that she can call virtually all of the shots at Fontana City Hall, including who is to be hired, fired and promoted, along with decision-making power over which companies or individuals will be approved for providing services and goods to the city or which entities will be awarded franchises. Perhaps most significantly, her position as the city’s top political dog has given her and her allies on the council and their appointees to the planning commission as well as those who are employed within the city’s building and safety, development services, economic development, housing and planning departments, who serve, essentially, at the pleasure of the city council and/or their designee as city manager, control over which developers will be granted approval for their building proposals. As such, Warren has been able to commandeer the attention and loyalty of the most consistent and deep-pocketed of contributors to the electioneering funds of those vying for office in Fontana. Her primacy in this regard, going back for more than a decade, has allowed her to accumulate, election cycle after election cycle, money in her campaign war chest which dwarfs that of anyone else in Fontana as well as nearly all of the other politicians in San Bernardino County, with only a handful of exceptions. With this kind of funding available to her, she has made loans and transfers from her campaign nest egg to others, including Roberts, Cothran and Garcia, to get them elected or reelected, as well as to key figures within the Fontana political scene, such as members of both the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the Fontana Unified School District Board of Trustees.
Warren, at the end of 2023, had $186,112.70 remaining in her political war chest. Throughout 2023, which was for her an off-political year, she had made $131,339.31 in expenditures, a significant portion of which went to boost the fortunes of her political allies. Of that, $2,573.07 went to Councilman Garcia to assist him with a fundraiser for his upcoming reelection campaign this year. Moreover, in 2022, when she last ran for reelection, doing so successfully, Warren started the year with $256,788.44 in her campaign coffer and took in throughout the course of the year $371,291.91. She expended during the same 12 months $482,093.31, much of it on her own re-electoral effort. Nevertheless, a substantial amount of her money was provided to other politicians, including forgiving a $3,670 loan she had made in the past to former Fontana Councilman/current San Bernardino County Second District Supervisor Jesse Armendarez, $17,505 in loans made to Jesse Armendarez’s brother, Joe Armendarez, to support him in his successful election bid for the Fontana School Board; $4,000 to Adam Perez in support of his campaign for the Fontana School Board; $13,609.50 in loans provided to Lauren Gomez in her unsuccessful school board electoral effort; and $16,710.86 to Rayman Martinez for his unsuccessful attempt to be elected to the Fontana School Board.
In 2022, when he last ran for reelection, Councilman John Roberts began the year with $67,592.89 in his electioneering fund. He collected $86,750 in contributions that year. He spent $41,450.54 on his successful campaign, ending the year with a cash balance of $47,427.69.
In 2022, Councilman Phil Cothran, Jr. started out with $10,027 in his campaign account. Over the course of the year, he collected $95,450 in contributions. He expended $68,527.82 on his successful reelection campaign that year. He ended the year with $36,949,18 left over.
Councilman Pete Garcia began this year with $33,565.12 in his reelection fund.
Thus, the incumbent members of the city council who supported the imposition of the $1,000 campaign sign deposit are prepared to apply a ready amount of cash to cover that deposit.
In his presentation of the draft ordinance for consideration on Tuesday, Deputy City Manager Ray Ebert represent it as a well-thought through, necessary and fair refinement of the electoral process in Fontana.
He said that on March 26, “This item was partially presented to council regarding a fee for campaign signs, a fee deposit for campaign signs that the city would like to begin collecting… at the beginning of any campaign when the application’s presented to the city. There was some discussion during that meeting regarding low-income folks who may want to run a campaign in the city and the hardship that this deposit may put upon them as well as anyone who may wish to simply not put up signs in the city. So, we’ve changed the resolution to accommodate both low-income candidates who apply and we’ve chosen to adopt the low-income rates that the Department of Housing and Urban Development have [sic] adopted, and that is, effectively, anyone who makes less than fifty percent of the median wage of that community. So anyone [who] falls within that income rate would be excluded from this or exempt from this fee requirement, and they would be able to put up their signs without submitting the fee. Additionally, it will allow somebody to affirm that they will not be putting up any campaign signs in the community and only in the public right of way, which is our only authority in this particular item. If they choose to affirm they won’t put up campaign signs, we will not require them to submit the $1,000 fee as a deposit.”
Based on Ebert’s reference to the public right of way, Councilman Jesse Sandoval asked about where the law was applicable.
Ebert’s response appeared to indicate that by paying the fee, a candidate would thereby be allowed to post signs in the public right of way.
“There are two items I would respond to that with,” Ebert said in response to Sandoval. “First, is we have a sign ordinance in the City of Fontana that dictates size and location of signs on personal property or private property. So, the sign ordinance would take effect for those signs that are in someone’s private property, that are in their front yard, for example. Additionally, it was assumed – and I can add this language if it is council’s desire – it was assumed the city only has jurisdiction over the public right of way. We don’t have jurisdiction over your home outside of the sign ordinance as it exists. So, if we need to, or if the council would like us to, we can add language to stipulate that this is only applicable to signs in the public right of way, because we don’t have authority anywhere else.”
Sandoval pressed Ebert on whether the ordinance would explicitly reverse previous bans on posting political signs in the public right of way or on city property.
“Are they going to be allowed to put signs in the parkway?” Sandoval asked, referring to the strip of landscaping between the sidewalk and the street owned by the city in both commercial and residential districts.
“I’m not an expert in this area, but I can address the point that there are many areas in public property that is the responsibility of the homeowner,” Ebert said, before giving an indication that posting political signs in the city’s parkways will become permissible for those able to pay the sign fee to the city. “If they put the deposit up, they can,” Ebert said.
Cothran piped up, saying: “It was already illegal to put the signs there, according to our sign limitations, to put anything in the right of way.”
Ebert responded, “The sign ordinance is the overarching authority for any signs.”
There was a degree of ambiguity, but just enough daylight to indicate that the ordinance change to be voted on that night was going to allow those with enough money to pay the deposit to use the public right of way to utilize signs to promote their campaigns going forward.
City Attorney Ruben Duran did not deign to weigh in on the matter, allowing the impression that paying the deposit would widen the area in which campaign signs can be posted to the city’s parkways and public right of way.
Before the council voted on the matter, Mayor Warren opened the hearing to the public.
Several Fontana residents came forward to tell the council before it voted that they believed the deposit policy was a cynical manipulation of the city’s authority to solidify the incumbents’ hold on political power.
Bobbi Jo Chavarria, who placed second in the race for mayor in 2010, said, “It is regretful that the city staff and the city clerk’s office has taken another couple of months to return with this recommendation of ordinance and still doesn’t have a policy or procedure to actually handle it. What this is is a deterrent for city council candidates to run in this city. It is also a deterrent to other elected officials and other candidates to actually participate in democracy in this city. You all are pals and friends with all the folks on Sierra [Avenue] and they let you use their right of way illegally. They let you use their right of way to display the signs all over the place.”
Chavarria noted that in the past, the signs of those challenging council incumbents have been “confiscated even before the election is over.” She referenced “signs being removed arbitrarily from their approved posting.”
Chavarria said the sign deposit ordinance is “just another tool in the city’s arsenal to really oppress any public voice. The $1,000 we know is no big sweat for a mayor who can illegally and over the limit fund her other candidates that she supports. But a thousand dollars even for someone who makes above the poverty wage is still a huge request and burden on a grassroots candidate to have their money tied up for an election cycle. With no policy or procedure in place, no accounting, you all can charge whatever you want per sign. I don’t think this should be approved at this point until we see the procedures.”
Oscar Zambrano, speaking in Spanish, said, “This clearly violates the freedom of expression of people, especially the ones who are poor. We need to eliminate political resolutions and laws that prevent access to democracy, especially those restricting poor people. It is not enough to have access for people with low income, because it is very easy for four or five council members to have a thousand dollars because they have their friends in the chamber of commerce or in San Bernardino County. They have PACS [political action committees] that support them.”
Zambrano said, “As a resident, I oppose this initiative. A lot of people will now be limited in their access and ability to run for public office.” He said the council was dominated by the mayor and her allies. “That is why today we want to have democracy and freedom of expression,” he said. He called upon the council to eliminate the obstacles to those in the community, particularly those who are not privileged, getting involved politically. He said that he was requesting that the council not pass the sign fee deposit ordinance, even though he knew the council majority was going to vote for it. He emphasized that there were many people in the community who had different attitudes and opinions than the members of the city council. He said the sign fee deposit ordinance was intended more for the convenience and perpetuation of the power of the council than it was for the principle of democracy or for the community.
Stacy Ramos said, “This policy is definitely a barrier to entry for candidates that don’t have the couple hundred thousand dollars that Cothran, Acquanetta, Roberts get. We need to make sure that the democratic process and running for office is accessible to all. A thousand dollars to pay up front for one to sign up can be a detrimental effect for folks who like me who don’t get the money that you guys get to run for office. I really don’t see the need for this ordinance.”
Ramos continued, “My other concern about this is there is no process or procedures on how we are going to actually roll this out. I know that my boss would never let me roll out a new process or a new ordinance or anything unless I had all my ducks in a row.
“My last concern,” Ramos added, “is that we have something called community. But what does community mean? How are we defining community? Are we defining it at a park? Are we defining it on a corner? Are we defining at somebody’s house? Somebody’s yard? I know this city. I know how you weaponize these ordinances to punish people who are fighting for their democratic rights.”
Elizabeth Sena said, “I am pretty sure this ordinance came about because of a particular campaign for a specific position is coming up in 2026, maybe the one of the mayor. I have taken a look at some of your guys’ [Form] 460s, which show your political campaign contributions. I always find it alarming how much money you receive from developers that later on down the road you guys end up approving projects for. If all of these efforts are for the 2026 elections, it is very telling that you guys want to put fees [on political candidacies] because you guys can afford it. Your political campaigns can afford it because you guys sponsored other people who are on the council today.”
Without saying so directly, Warren sought to suggest that the ordinance was not intended to provide incumbents or well-financed candidates with an advantage over their challengers or opponents. As one of the most heavily backed politicians in the county monetarily, she left any direct assertions to that effect to Ebert. In addressing whether paying the ordinance would indeed have the effect of allowing those well-endowed enough financially to post signs in the public right of way, she spoke in circles, making a statement that could not be interpreted to any logical or cogent conclusion.
“The right of way is the right of way called public right of way,” she said.
Fontana is doing nothing any different than other cities, she asserted.
“Several cities around this region have this current ordinance because of what they call sign graffiti,” she said, a curious projection, given that in the election seasons in which she has been on the ballot, her signs overwhelm those of all others in Fontana.
She justified the ordinance by insisting, “No one is benefiting from this financially up here,” without directly addressing whether the incumbents on the council would realize an electoral boost or political benefit from the ordinance. “It won’t be outlandish and it won’t be unobtainable,” she said.
The ordinance was approved on a motion by Roberts and a second by Cothran, followed by a 3-to-1 vote with Garcia absent and Sandoval dissenting.
Today, May 24, David Loy, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, told the Sentinel, “I see a serious constitutional problem with the imposition of this fee in that it appears to be an effort to regulate political speech. The Supreme Court has ruled that a governmental entity cannot regulate signs based on their content. It would be one thing if it were to regulate any and all types of signs, but this is specific to political campaign signs. That is a limitation of speech based on content, so I think what we have is a serious question as to whether this violates the First Amendment.”
Loy said the city was not without authority to regulate signage, but that if it is to do so, it must involve a consistency of application and purpose.
“It may be that the city might not allow anyone to place signs in the public right of way, but it cannot create an exception that is based on the content,” he said. “This is a resolution that is based on the content of speech.”
Loy said the city allows certain entities to post signs in the public right of way. That being the case, it must allow other entities, extending to candidates for political office, to do so as well. Any limitations put on the political candidates must, under the California and U.S. constitutions, be imposed on others, he said.
For some in the community, there was concern about the way in which Ebert and the council handled the discussion on Tuesday, with a degree of ambiguity relating to whether paying the fee would allow a candidate to post signs in the public right of way borne of Ebert suggesting that to be the case, Cothran noting that it had been the case in the past that such postings were prohibited and a lack of specificity offered by the city attorney on that point. If a controversy breaks out over what the ordinance allows or doesn’t allow, an analysis of the intent expressed by the city’s legislative body during the discussion of the ordinance prior to its approval could point to the conclusion that giving those who pay the fee clearance to post their campaign signs in the public right of way or the city’s parkways was consistent with what Ebert presented and the council’s intent.
Loy said the wording of the resolution itself was not clear on that point.
“That is not what the resolution says as I look at it,” he said.
Whether or not the council was engaging in a rhetorical end run during the discussion of the ordinance, at which he was not present, Loy said, the actual content of the resolution does not look to pass constitutional muster.
“Be that as it may, this appears to in fact have content as its criteria,” Loy said. “The resolution specifically identifies campaign signs. It applies only to campaign signs, which is one type of signs. It does not address or apply to commercial signs, or for music concerts or arcades or parades or church meetings or what have you. The Supreme Court says government cannot regulate signs based on content. I can’t give you a definitive and binding legal opinion based solely on my limited five-to-ten minute reading and analysis of the resolution and ordinance, but as I look at the resolution, it appears to violate the First Amendment.”
Beyond that, the intent of imposing the fee is dubious, Loy said.
“If they are going to extend that type of benefit to one class, if they are going to allow those who pay the fee to post their signs, that is selectively extending a benefit based on the content of speech,” he said. “They are still distinguishing or discriminating based on the type or content of the signs. That in itself creates a serious question based on its compliance with the First Amendment.”
Loy acknowledged that given its authority and control over the machinery of municipal government and the enforcement of the city’s codes, the city council is in a position to impose an unconstitutional ordinance until someone or some entity legally challenges what it is doing.
“That is the process and how it works,” Loy said, indicating that residents merely resenting the regulations contained in the ordinance or verbally objecting to them will not prevent the ordinance from being enforced. He said a legal challenge would need to be mounted to prevent the ordinance from remaining on the books.
“The remedy is for someone to take it to court and have a judge decide whether it should be enforced or not,” he said.
Mark Gutglueck

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