It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
In an effort to drum up business for his store, Wine Country Coin Gold and Silver, Don Cameron recently hired a “sign waver.”
The job requires his employee to pace up and down an Imola Avenue sidewalk for hours at a time waving or shaking a five-foot long billboard in hopes of catching the attention of passing cars. “CASH for GOLD!” reads the arrow- shaped sign.
“It’s a hard, hot job,” Cameron said. “And it’s not fun. I don’t know if I could do it.”
Cameron opened his business in the River Park shopping center in late 2011. After being approached by an employment specialist at Napa Valley Support Services, Cameron hired a young man named Harvey to be his sign waver. Napa Valley Support Services provides employment, education and community services for adults with disabilities.
Harvey, who declined to give his last name, had been unemployed for several years before connecting with Cameron, said Arty Reyes, an employment specialist with Napa Valley Support Services.
Harvey embraced his new job, which paid $10 per hour. “He’s been a good, hard worker,” Cameron said. All seemed to be well with both employer and employee until late April when Cameron received a letter from the city’s code enforcement division. Apparently holding and waving portable signs is a city code violation. Sandwich board, A-frame, rotating and flashing signs are also illegal, along with roof and vehicle signs, according to the municipal code.
Last February, the City Council announced plans to refocus code enforcement efforts on policing illegal signs, but the ordinance isn’t new, said city Planning Manager Ken MacNab.
“Portable signs, including signs that are movable or moving, have been prohibited in the city’s ordinance for some time,” he noted. “The council has expressed an interest in bringing these signs into conformance and we are making a concerted effort to do that.”
Facing fines starting at $100 and rising to as high as $500 day, Cameron let Harvey go on May 1, he said. Neither one of them is happy about it.
“It’s sad,” Cameron said. “We’re trying to help adisabled young kid out, and the city won’t allow someone to work and have a job. Now he’s probably going to be back on government assistance. It’s a real head shaker.”
Harvey declined to be interviewed for this story, but “he’s very frustrated,” Cameron said.
Portable signage can be considered blight, MacNab said. “It’s important that signage not obstruct the views and sightlines of vehicles, and that signs not be placed in our sidewalks and obstruct pedestrians.”
The ordinance also applies to pizza sign wavers, new home development sign wavers and even those who simply stand still and hold a sign without waving it, he said. “Portable signs are anything that is not permanently affixed.”
“We understand that signs are a valuable tool for businesses, but we do have regulations,” MacNab said. “We believe that there are other ways for a business to reach its customer base.”
“We are identifying all portable signs and asking they be removed,” MacNab said. “Nobody is being singled out.”
The planning manager estimated that approximately 20 such letters have been sent out by code enforcement.
Brett Meltzer, owner of the Liberty Tax franchise in River Park, also got a letter about his sign waver. Dressed as the Statue of Liberty, his waver, also paid $10 an hour, was a valuable part of his business during tax season, Meltzer said.
He plans to appeal to the city about the crackdown on sign wavers.
“I get 70 percent of my new business from just the sign waver,” he said. That’s the equivalent of 200 new tax clients every year. “It’s huge.”
Forbidding such signs “seems a bit punitive to me, and something that infringes on the small businesses in Napa,” Meltzer said. “I think the city has better things to do than deal with this nonsense.”
MacNab said he was sympathetic about Harvey’s situation.
“It’s not good to hear that someone is losing a job because someone has hired him to do something that is not permitted by city code,” MacNab said. “The purpose of this program wasn’t to put people out of work.” However, enforcing the code “helps level the playing field for businesses that are following the law.”
That’s no consolation to Harvey, Reyes said.
“He was making $10 an hour and getting his life together, and everything got taken away from him just like that,” Reyes said.
“He is very upset and disappointed,” Reyes said.
“Sign holder is not the greatest job in the world, but it was the world to him,” he said.