Nov. 10, 2006
 
LET’S PLAY… Paint a Bridge Pink in Honor of Breast Cancer Awareness; Attorney Paul Farrell Hints Lawsuit for Violation of City Charter; Jackson says ‘Hand Me a Paint Brush; and City Lost a Suit Monday…
 
By Tony Rutherford
Huntington News Network Writer
 

Jason Sansom, bridge painter
Huntington, WV (HNN) -- Only in Huntington… the same city on the brink of a world class premiere of an internationally distributed movie about its people overcoming tragedy would a separation of powers dispute between the legislative and executive come down to painting a bridge pink!
 
However, barring intervention by a judge or reconsideration by the Mayor, Jason Sansom has invited volunteers to meet Sunday at 10 a.m. at the Eighth Street Ritter Park Bridge to complete the task of painting it pink.
 
“I’m concerned with the level of attention [this has received],” said Council member Brandi Jones, adding, “When we have so many other problems [including] five unsolved murders in my district.”
 
Council looks at presentation by Tim Irr showing a portion of the city's areas in need of cleaning.
But, one by one, numerous members of the community rose to speak mostly against the painting of the historic Eighth Street Bridge pink in honor of breast cancer awareness. A litany of reasons were voiced -- lack of environmental permit, lack of consulting with the historic preservation commission, potential liability to the city from volunteers painting, maintenance expenses, that the “pink” paint is actually a “sign” and a permit must be purchased, and a host of others. Despite many “it’s embarrassing” statements, Mayor Felinton candidly told council that the matter has been “blown out of proportion” because the bridge leads to an affluent neighborhood. “Would this be a special meeting if this bridge were not in an area where [there are] one half million dollar homes?”
 
His statement had merit. When the quadruple murders occurred on Charleston Avenue, no special meetings were called, yet when multiple gunshots struck a house on Fairfax Drive -- a more influential section of town -- a special meeting occurred.
 
Felinton then revealed that in addition to one man kicking a paint bucket into the creek earlier in the week, people had called Sansom’s employer attempting to get him fired. Although one person suggested that the 26-year-old student paint his house pink, at least one person approached him with an offer to paint his car pink, if he would abandon the pink bridge project.
 
“The first time I painted the [12th Street] bridge, I really did not get any media attention until a lady who had breast cancer called the news… she was in support of it,” explained Sansom. Although he eventually painted the 12th Street bridge back to white, the most negative thing Sansom heard was “I didn’t go through proper channels to do the job correctly.”
 
Sansom told that he approached Mayor Felinton about painting a bridge. “He said I could paint the Eighth Street Bridge pink and we could do it in honor of breast cancer [awareness]. It is something that people face on a day to day basis, not just one month out of the year.”
 
Actually, the man must have a gracious heart, too. He moved from Huntington to Barboursville after he was mugged once and robbed twice and law enforcement did not do anything about it. The last time, he chased the thieves and provided their license numbers.
 
One audience member asked the mayor about “the decision making process” regarding granting permission to paint the bridge.
 
The Mayor responded, “I thought he was doing a good thing and it would be great if he could do the same thing on city property. I asked Public Works Director Charles Cornett about the bridges and viaducts. Cornett mentioned that eventually the bridge on Eighth Street would have to be replaced eventually.”
 
Although the question of whether the mayor had executive authority to allow the bridge to be painted by a volunteer rustled only as an undercurrent during most of the special meeting, Council member James Ritter asked City Attorney Scott McClure whether the mayor could grant permission to paint city property.
 
“I think it’s within the mayor’s providence to paint the bridge if he wants to. He’s chief administrator and CEO of the City of Huntington that what he was elected to do, so [permission] does not require council’s approval,” McClure opined.
 
Council person Frances Jackson reminded the audience which by her estimate included about 16 or 17 women that “one in eight… that’s two of us in the room will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.”
 
Retired attorney James St. Clair reminded council that the bridge had been damaged in an accident 20 years ago. Since the city had no means of restoring it, Jim’s son, Sam, replaced the columns. The elder St. Clair indicated that full restoration would require “sandblasting it back to concrete.”
 
But Jerry Straub, a licensed professional engineer, later in the meeting told council that even the sandblasting removal of the pink paint would require encapsulating the bridge to prevent contaminants from hitting the water. “Did we have an MSDC or OSHA inspection? Is proper OSHA scaffolding required? The EPA has just as complex regulations for paint [as for lead paint].”
 
Council eventually voted 7-4 in favor of a resolution “requesting that the mayor rescind his authorization to have the Eighth Street Bridge painted and take steps to have the paint already applied removed.” Council members Jones, Jackson, Ritter, and Loudermilk voted against the resolution. (You can download a pdf of the resolution and the letter calling the special session by clicking here.)
 
Following the special meeting, Council member Farrell surmised that the Mayor now “has the right” to paint City Hall pink if he so desires. Farrell then added, “I think this is something that will end up in court. It will be an individual effort.”
 
Asked if he personally would file the complaint, Farrell initially said “could be I certainly have the wherewithall to do it,” then told a second reporter that “I want to see how this plays out. I want to see if the mayor vetoes this, accept the will of council or not. He still has two years [to serve] and he does not consult us. He does not see us as an equal branch of government. How are we going to address some of these [other] problems if we continue to react and he continues to react to us? It’s disappointing.”
 
Farrell disagreed that the intent of the action was positive. “I think it’s the wrong gesture. Put up flags, put up ribbons, but you do not permanently for four or five years change the color of an important Huntington neighborhood. This is Ritter Park. This is the jewel of Huntington. I’m disappointed that he has determined by his own single vote to change the whole tone of the neighborhood.”
 
However, the pink bridge re-surfaced after council had its work session. During that debate, the mayor and city attorney reiterated their belief that the decision was a separation of powers issue between the executive (mayor) and legislative (council).
 
Mayor Felinton indicated he would not honor the “request” nor would he “veto” it. He analyzed that a veto would be inappropriate as council had no power to place the matter on its agenda.
 
“I mean no harm, no offense, by going against it, but I’m sure if you were Mayor … then you would surely do what the charter calls for as the role of mayor. It has nothing to do with egos or power... I would not as mayor try to usurp the powers of city council.”
 
Learning that the pink painting session would go forward Sunday morning, Farrell suggested he might file suit arguing that the mayor has violated the city charter and not upheld his oath of office.
 
“I think you are violating the charter. You are violating your oath by not following the guidance of council,” Farrell, an attorney and former U.S. attorney stated.
 
Felinton suggested that he could -- but would not sue -- over the matter stating that litigation would be a “waste of time.”
 
However, Farrell did not back peddle either. Since the courts are closed for the Veteran’s Day Holiday, HNN asked Farrell if he could obtain an injunction before Sunday.
 
“I don’t know. I’ll just have to let the neighbors know,” Farrell said. Prior to adjournment, City Attorney Scott McClure indicated that, if requested, he would thoroughly research the issue of whether the mayor has the authority to grant permission to paint the bridge.
 
Meanwhile, Council member Frances Jackson plans to “grab a paint brush” after she returns from a pre-Thanksgiving activity Sunday. And council member Kent, who sponsored the resolution, reminded everyone “what the resolution said was a request.”
 
Ironically, Sansom may have answered all the fretting of neighbors complaining about the pink economization: “Last year there was a bunch of kids that came out and painted the pink elephant [on Route 60] green. It made news and quickly every body went and painted it back to pink.”
 
Maybe, those who dislike the color would volunteer after a nominal amount of time passes to pay for sandblasting the bridge so that it will be placed back in better condition than it was when the mayor gave an enterprising young man permission to volunteer his time and money by putting paint on a worn bridge within the city limits.
 
And, as for the legal argument that “pink” paint constituted an illegal sign, Sansom added, “Do real estate agents come to [the city] when they put up a for sale sign to pay a fee to do that? Did [anyone] have to pay a fee to put election signs in their front yard?”
 
Incidentally, during the work session, the city learned it had lost a lawsuit filed by Jeff Hood. McClure indicated that Judge David Pancake entered summary judgment against the city and a damage jury awarded Hood $75,000. Although the question of obtaining the money through contingency funds surfaced, McClure eased council’s minds. Since the complaint involved damage to Hood’s property and his not paying city fees, Judge Pancake had stipulated that any award be off-set against owed fees or future fees.
 
Apparently, water damaged the property during the paving of Whittaker Blvd. some years ago. But, during the litigation, although the paving job was done by the city, no contract could be found for the paving services.