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Sunnyside drops charges against Tom Paul

There's a thaw in the chilly relationship between Prosser contractor Tom Paul and the city of Sunnyside.

Yesterday, City Attorney Mark Kunkler dropped charges against Paul for what the city contended were violations against its sign code.

Paul owns a strip of land along South First Street on which he had placed several political signs opposing former City Manager Bob Stockwell. The city alleged that the amount of signage violated its sign codes. Paul held that city ordinances regulate only "commercial" signs.

Sunnyside and Paul were headed to court on Oct. 24 for what Paul says was going to be a jury selection in a case that he felt involved a freedom of speech issue.

That's all painted over now, as Paul's billboards are a sea of whitewash.

And that, says Kunkler, is why the city dropped its charges. "The signs were covered up and the issue has been resolved," Kunkler said of his decision to pull the case.

Paul, though, feels the city dropped the case because its charges wouldn't hold up in court.

"There was no legal basis for their charges and I think the city realized that," Paul says. "Robert Stockwell didn't follow the law. He was denying me first amendment rights."

Speaking of Stockwell, Kunkler confirmed this morning the former city manager's recent resignation played a part in ending the stalemate.

"The very target of Tom's signs was directed at Mr. Stockwell," said Kunkler, currently the city's interim city manager. "Because Bob has resigned it takes away the primary focus."

Resolving the sign code fracas may also lead to a break in the land squabble Sunnyside and Paul have over whether the city has right-of-way access to 30 feet or 15 feet of Paul's property from the roadway.

The long-standing dispute has prevented Paul from using a billboard that sits within the contested area. It is also a factor in holding up the city's plans to widen South First Street.

Kunkler said Stockwell's departure and the dropping of sign code charges "present an opportunity for both sides to meet and resolve the issues."

For his part, Paul is willing to sit down one-on-one with Kunkler to settle the land issue.

"Hopefully we can resolve the issue of the right-of-way," Paul said. "I think the parties now are more apt to sit down and discuss the matter without using attorneys. It's costing the taxpayers more than that land's worth."

Paul has contracted with attorney J.J. Sandlin and Sunnyside has spent about $162,000 for its own outside counsel with Preston, Gates and Ellis of Seattle in arguing the land issue.

Kunkler said the city is discussing a possible agreement with Paul. "Council has discussed the issue in executive session," Kunkler added.

When a deal is reached, Paul says his billboard will be used to communicate something other than political messages.

"What I foresee happening is that I can advertise on the billboard," he said.

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