Earl Johnson is a mechanic who spends up to 20 hours a month as a county reserve police officer.

But even on patrol, he's seen one type of illegal activity that until now he has done little to prevent --illegal signs.

"There's a lot of them, and they shouldn't be out there," said Johnson, 42.

Yesterday, Johnson sat through a briefing on what makesa sign illegal and how to rid the county of unsightly signs.

RichJosephson, acting zoning administrator, led two two-hour briefings at the Heritage Center on Riva Road. His audience was county employeesand reserve police who will participate in a program aimed at stepping up sign enforcement efforts by keeping their eyes peeled for violations and distributing violation notices when they find them.

Similar briefings are scheduled for today, also at the Heritage Center.

About 100 reserve officers and employees of the departments of Recreation and Parks, Utilities, Police, Public Works and Inspections andPermits will participate.

County Executive Robert R. Neall said yesterday that sign enforcement is only the first of similar programs in which he hopes to use workers from several departments to handle problems that up to now have been handled by only one or two.

He said such practices will maximize manpower at a time when demands are increasing and government must cuts costs.

"They're (zoning officials) responsible for enforcing the sign ordinance countywide, and it just can't be done," said Neall. "It's too big a job."

Josephson told one group yesterday that his nine staffers are unable to handle the deluge of illegal sign complaints that come into his office each week.

"It's a problem that has snowballed over the years, and it's gotten to a point where illegal signs have gotten out of control," Josephson said.

The training sessions included a slide presentation showing illegal signs posted at liquor, furniture and convenience stores, supermarkets, car dealerships, sandwich shops, and flea markets.

Illegal temporary signs include all banners, posters, streamers, balloons, portable signs, sandwich boards and signs with flashing lights, according to a brochure distributed yesterday.

Beginning next month, Josephson said, the county will begin tearing down illegal signs that are in highway rights of way, and will serve "friendly notices" to those who hang illegal signs that they are in violation.

"This letter is a friendly notice, advising you that one or more of the signs located on your property is not permitted under the Anne Arundel County Code," the notices say.

The group also was given advice from police Sgt. Bonnie Welsh on how to use tact when approaching violators -- particularly merchants who see the sign as a way to attract customers and who are told for the first time that it is illegal.

"Treat people the way you would want to be treated," she said.

Sheadded that appearances can be important.

"I can't tell you peoplehow to dress when you go around making these calls, but I don't wantyou going around these places looking like a hold-up man," she said.

Beginning Feb. 17, the group will begin to survey areas assigned to them.

Merchants and others served with friendly notices will have until March 1 to get rid of the signs or face a not-so-friendly violation notice that could lead to fines ranging from $50 to $500 per day, Josephson said.

Fines are a last resort, but may become more common as the county grapples with the problem, Josephson said.

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