Drawing a hopscotch board on a city sidewalk is now illegal in Anoka after the City Council finalized an ordinance banning display of any unauthorized “flag, artwork, sign, or similar objects” upon city property.
City property includes city-owned buildings, sites, parks, light poles, flagpoles, streets, sidewalks and other city infrastructure.
The final ordinance, which is intended to keep the city neutral and protect it from potential litigation, was approved in a 4-1 vote Nov. 1, with Council Member Erik Skogquist dissenting.
Skogquist said he agrees with 95% of the ordinance. “But I don’t want to make it illegal for a kid to draw on the sidewalk with chalk, which is basically what we’re saying,” he said.
In addition to banning unauthorized displays, the ordinance says the city will not display commemorative flags or objects at the request of a third party. It may, however, change the color of lighting on the Main Street bridge and in other locations for entities and causes the city financially supports and partners with, such as Anoka Halloween or Alexandra House.
According to city staff, the ordinance doesn’t apply to items displayed on private vehicles or carried by individuals while on city property.
An exception in the ordinance allows “displays, memorials, or artwork commissioned or solicited from and approved by the City, which celebrates and/or portrays the City of Anoka in a positive fashion.”
City staff is working with the community members who started a rock garden in honor of Nicole Burnham, an Anoka High School graduate who died by suicide in 2018 after being sexually harassed in the military, to make the garden an official part of Riverfront Memorial Park so it will be allowed under the ordinance.
Although the ordinance doesn’t focus on sidewalk chalk, or even mention it specifically, the measure has the effect of banning chalk from use by the general public on city property and was a major point of discussion Nov. 1.
When the ordinance was introduced in October, Skogquist raised concern about how it would apply to chalk art, referencing a case in Minneapolis where the city settled a lawsuit filed after a woman was detained and issued a trespass order for writing a message with chalk on a public sidewalk.
Prior to the Nov. 1 meeting, City Attorney Scott Baumgartner researched case law related to sidewalk chalk in response to Skogquist’s concerns. Baumgartner said that based on federal precedent, cities may regulate the use of sidewalk chalk on city property for the purpose of maintaining the aesthetic appearance of city property. At his recommendation, the council added maintaining aesthetics as a stated purpose of the ordinance.
Baumgartner said it would put the city at risk of legal challenges if it tried to ban some types of chalk work but not others.
“This is one of those situations where we should be considering an all or none,” he told the council.
Council Member Jeff Weaver said he was comfortable with the ordinance because it will be applied with discretion. Just because officers can cite someone for a behavior doesn’t mean they have to, he said. The Anoka Police Department often takes the approach of educating people about an ordinance rather than issuing a citation immediately, following up with stronger enforcement action only to deal with persistent noncompliance.
“I understand Erik’s argument, but I understand the discretion part of having the tool in the toolbox, and I’m not afraid of that,” Weaver said. “I don’t think Erik’s kids are going to get taken and cuffed and stuffed for playing hopscotch on the street.”
But that room for discretion was part of what concerned Skogquist. He said if the Police Department doesn’t enforce the ordinance in every instance, the city could open itself up to accusations of discrimination when it does enforce the ordinance.
For Skogquist, if it came down to an all-or-nothing ban of sidewalk chalk on city property, he’d choose nothing, even if that meant allowing some offensive chalk work.
“If the price of that is somebody drawing something on sidewalk or a public plaza ... that the rain’s going to wash off, or somebody can spill a bucket of water on or whatever, I’m fine with that,” he said.
The other council members, however, decided a blanket ban on sidewalk chalk on city property was unfortunate but necessary given the city attorney’s legal analysis.
“I think that this is silly to say that you can’t have that type of chalk work on the sidewalk,” Mayor Phil Rice said. “But in the case where it is something that is very political or very offensive, I don’t think you can go with a bucket of water and throw it on it without a bigger problem than telling a youngster to paint that hopscotch on the driveway. And so I think this is wise to try to head off what we can. And I think if we leave an exemption, then we’re inviting the material, and I think that would be a mistake. … It’s unfortunate that our culture, our society, makes rules like this. But I think it is wise to do so, because I think it protects the integrity of the city and our community and our citizens and all of that from … more nonsense.”