News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

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Houlihan banners: Art and politics

Once again, a controversial piece of art has cast the city of Encinitas into the spotlight.

June 2011 found the city amid a debate regarding whether a mosaic dubbed the “Surfing Madonna,” which was illegally placed underneath a train bridge on Encinitas Boulevard, was graffiti or a piece of art.

Less than a year later, a series of banners was the new hot-button issue.

When the 101 Artists’ Colony decided to put up its annual Arts Alive banners on light poles along a stretch of North Coast Highway 101, it didn’t think that placing an image of late Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan on the backs of the banners would be an issue. But according to the city, it was.

A municipal code does not allow for a political likeness to be placed on city property. Many Encinitas residents, along with Houlihan’s husband, Ian Thompson, said that the banners were anything but that.

“The banner tribute is directed toward a person who actively supported the arts in Encinitas, pure and simple,” Thompson told the City Council at a special meeting on the issue April 11, where the council ultimately voted 4-1 to keep the banners up. “It was never designed as a political message.”

Before that April 11 vote, instead of removing the 100 banners or causing damage by painting over them, the 101 Artists’ Colony placed blue stickers over Houlihan’s likeness, making them compliant with the code. According to Danny Salzhandler, the Arts Alive organizer, both Thompson and The Coast News footed the $900 bill for the stickers.

But Thompson considered the ban to be a violation of the First Amendment, and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and Encinitas-based Pacific Law Group, which both felt he had a strong case.

Because Houlihan often found herself at odds with several members of the council during her 11-year tenure, Thompson and others also saw the ban as a way for those members to force their personal and political agendas.

“They have just simply tried to, from what I’ve seen, erase her from the history books of Encinitas,” Salzhandler said.

“Maggie’s memory will never be erased from Encinitas, nor do I want it to be,” said Deputy Mayor Kristin Gaspar, who voted against keeping the banners up. “Some members of the community may be attempting to rewrite history by painting me as a rival. To the contrary, Maggie added to my life over the brief time that I knew her.”

At the April 11 council meeting, City Manager Gus Vina made clear that he met with Salzhandler, and that he never denied a permit to put up the banners. Vina did say that he and Salzhandler agreed that the mission of Arts Alive could be accomplished without using Houlihan’s image.

The council also told Salzhandler that he didn’t follow the proper procedure when applying for the permit.

“I did absolutely follow the process, and I defy anybody to show me how I didn’t,” Salzhandler said. “And the permit was absolutely denied because they told me I could appeal. And you don’t have to appeal something that has not been denied, so they need a better command over the English language.”

In the end, the council voted to allow Salzhandler to resubmit his application for a permit, which would include the image of Houlihan.

“I do like the idea of the banner honoring Maggie,” Councilman Mark Muir said in the April 11 meeting. “And I don’t like the idea of going to court. I think it’s a lot of wasted money.”

But for Gaspar, she said she feels that the entire matter was more than just an image on the back of a banner. And although she agrees that there was vagueness in the code, she said she also feels that the council cannot begin selectively enforcing policies.

“Individuals cannot come to council armed with threats of baseless litigation,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is what happened last week.”

Salzhandler later spent nearly 24 hours removing the stickers on the banners, which will remain on display until mid-May. The banners will be auctioned off on May 20 at Cardiff Towne Center for the 101 Artists’ Colony. More information about the banners can be found at the Arts Alive website.

Christopher Earley is a San Diego freelance writer



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Houlihan banners: Art and politics