City of Geneva Department of Public Works crews clean up a Black Lives Matter inscription on a sidewalk at Seneca and Exchange streets in 2020.

GENEVA — It’s illegal to use chalk on a downtown street to express political viewpoints.

It’s also illegal to make hopscotch squares on a residential street.

That’s what the city has determined based on a reading of city municipal code, said Planner Katie Labbe

“As of right now, there is no chalking allowed in the city,” she said. “This extends to even kids who want to chalk on the sidewalks in front of their house — it’s not allowed.”

On Wednesday, City Council will consider ways to allow chalking — in certain circumstances and places. A resolution is on the meeting agenda that would allow it under certain circumstances.

The proposal follows a couple of controversial chalking incidents over the past year, one last Aug. 7, when Black Lives Matter and similar themes were etched on downtown sidewalks in washable chalk paint, and at the sidewalk in front of the Public Safety Building on Exchange Street in April, where Police Chief Mike Passalacqua expressed outrage over what he said were “uncalled for and harassing” remarks against police.

The BLM stencilings downtown were removed by the city in accordance with a 53-year-old ordinance, Advertising in Public Places, Chapter 64, which states: “No person shall place upon or affix, or cause or procure to be placed upon or affixed, to any sidewalk, hydrant, lamppost, tree, telephone, telegraph or electric light pole or public building in any public street or place within the city any words, characters, device, bill, placard, poster, notice, letters or pictures of any kind as a notice of or reference to any article, business, exhibition, profession, matter or event of any nature, including political contests.”

The city’s Public Arts Committee announced last August that it was supporting changes to the ordinance that would allow such artwork in some fashion.

“It’s (the amendment to the ordinance) basically just the follow-up to the statement the committee released last August,” Labbe said. “The committee was initially looking to present the ordinance update last fall, but just based off of the length of council meetings and number of items on their agendas, the group decided to hold off until this summer to bring it forward.”

She said no councilor pushed for the resolution but noted that Ward 6’s John Pruett is the first Council liaison to the Public Art Committee.

Labbe said that under the proposed ordinance change, chalking in the Business Improvement District — which comprises a good portion of downtown Geneva — would need prior approval from the PAC.

Under the ordinance amendment, chalking on city-owned sidewalks on residential streets would be allowed without prior approvals. However, chalking outside of the BID would need prior approval from the PAC, as well as a couple other city department heads, Labbe said.

The punishment for violating the ordinance is no more than 40 hours of community service, “primarily cleaning off the violating chalking,” said Labbe.

Those who would like permission to chalk sidewalks will need to fill out an application, she noted, as well as possible notification or even permission of business owners adjacent to those walks.

“The goal of the proposed update is to allow for more public art in the city, but also to get us away from a system that is really complaint driven currently,” Labbe said. “The proposed changes foster more equitability, but also more public expression of art and free speech, which is one of the PAC’s main goals.”

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