America the Messy Yard Police State

Tempe selectively enforces its sign laws

ASU mechanical engineering student John Barron is a lousy government snitch

Tempe selectively enforces its sign laws


Tempe sign vigilante reined in
By Garin Groff, Tribune
July 31, 2006

A budget crunch forced Tempe to virtually stop going after scofflaws who posted illegal signs in the city, and for a time it seemed nothing was in place to keep visual blight from overwhelming the place.

But Tempe residents had somebody watching over them — a sign vigilante.

Some city officials dubbed the unknown man Batman for his initially secret identity and his passion for protecting the city from crime.

He’d call and e-mail with reports of illegal signs across the city, the kind that urge passers-by to, “Lose weight now!” “Avoid foreclosure!” “Make money from home!”

He even e-mailed a photo of a stack of illegal signs he’d snatched and accumulated.

But after comparing emails, they determined their Batman was John Barron, a 41-year-old pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at Arizona State University. [ Why on earth did the messy yard cops trace down this guys identity? Isn’t the lousy snitch helping them? I bet they want to charge him with some crimes]

Barron reported more illegal signs than any other Tempe resident — actually, more than everybody else put together.

He also took a large number of signs — the number of which even Barron struggled to determine in a recent interview.

“Probably a couple hundred,” Barron said after a long pause. A moment passed before he explained how he came up with the number: “I was thinking of it terms of trunkloads.”

Barron has lived in Tempe six years and always kept an eye out for signs because he thinks they make the city ugly. He noticed a surge in them a year ago and started taking them down in large numbers.

At the time, the signs told people to “Make money at home” and offered a toll-free number. The number asked callers to send money for a booklet, and Barron assumed the booklet told people to post similar signs that asked callers to send money.

“If it is just some get-rich quick scheme and it’s not a real business, that’s where I think it’s more warranted to take the sign or shark it,” Barron said.

Sharking refers to cutting the phone number from a sign. That can be more effective than removing a sign, Barron said. An owner might assume a missing sign was blown away by a storm, but the owner of a cut-up sign knows it’s offended somebody.

Barron refers to the illegal signs as “street spam,” a term also used by Citizens Against Ugly Street Spam. The Texasbased group operates a web site,, that encourages people to report signs to code enforcement departments in their communities. And it advocates aggressive efforts to shark or pull out signs soon after they’re posted to discourage more of them.

Barron has a few rules. He won’t touch political signs, which he views as important forms of speech [so the lousy sign snitch loves government rulers]. He leaves lost dog signs alone and said he won’t take signs from merchants offering specials.

Tempe doesn’t like residents removing signs. A code enforcement officer wrote Barron a letter recently, asking him to stop because the city code says that’s the job of city employees. But the city welcomed the complaints he submitted, said Jeff Tamulevich, in charge of code compliance.

Barron knows the sign ordinance well and is correct nine out of 10 times he reports a problem, Tamulevich said. [ So the messy sign law is so complex that even experts only get it right 9 out of 10 times? ] His complaints have helped at a time when the city only has one person doing this kind of enforcement — and only in response to complaints, Tamulevich said.

When the code inspector goes out, businesses with illegal signs usually turn in other merchants with illegal signs because they don’t want competitors to have a leg up. Businesses have noticed the difference.

The city will have three inspectors by September, which Tamulevich said should solve the problem. Barron said he is eager to see more city employees and hopes it will allow him to stop taking signs. Barron knows others are taking signs because he’s seen some vanish that he knows the city didn’t have time to address. Barron explains his passion for following rules in moral terms. “Edwin Burke said, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ ”

Contact Garin Groff by email, or phone (480) 898-5938


America the Messy Yard Police State