BARTOW, Florida - Homeowners like Trina Kelly say they keep a nice yard and pay their taxes. That's why Kelly says she was so shocked when Bartow code enforcement stopped by to say a patriotic "God Bless America" sign in her front lawn was a violation of city ordinance.
"My husband was told to take down our sign, and he was told we would get a fine! And that really upset me," Kelly told city commissioners.
Kelly wasn't alone. Bartow residents packed city hall for Monday night's commission meeting.
"It's almost like the city of Bartow now is like the government, telling us what we can do and what we can't do," complained Kelly. "I pay my property taxes and my house taxes. If you guys want to pay that for me, I will do anything you want."
Some residents saw the crackdown as the city's way of controlling free speech, especially when it comes to religious views.
"It's high time everybody gets together and tell Washington, let the Hill know, we want our Jesus," said a fired up Paula Adam. "Without him there's nothing gonna work."
But Bartow's city manager, George Long, says code enforcement officers did nothing wrong. He says the decision to issue warnings to residents was based not on the message, but an old ordinance designed to keep the city clean.
"You may end up with a situation that amounts to visual clutter, to a point where it's not acceptable to the community," said Long.
But many residents feel there should be exceptions, especially when it comes to messages involving patriotism on someone's private property.
"This sign means more to me than just a sign in a yard," said Kelly. "It's a freedom. It's my right."
City leaders say they too value freedom of speech and hope to have a revised temporary sign ordinance ready for review in the next four to six weeks.
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