Billboards Gone Wild: 4,000 Illegal Billboards Choke L.A.'s Neighborhoods
Is City Hall corrupt, or just inept?
By CHRISTINE PELISEK
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Shortly before Thanksgiving, a furtive crew of workers for L.A. Outdoor Advertising poured a cement foundation next to the Harbor Freeway and anchored a huge metal structure into the wet cement. A few days and roughly $100,000 later, the crew had erected L.A.’s latest illegal billboard atop an equally illegal 10-ton superstructure that can be removed only with a wrecker.
Adding insult to injury, the whole thing was built in full view of the windowed offices of Los Angeles city billboard inspectors — a tiny, and some say incredibly inept, group who are failing in City Hall’s purported effort to find and remove an estimated 4,000 illegal billboards blighting L.A.
So pathetic is the battle against outdoor advertising companies that the massive billboard went unnoticed for months by leaders at City Hall, including big-time billboard proponent and council member Ed Reyes, in whose district the sign sits. It was left to irritated commuters, like pissed-off clutter critic Dennis Hathaway, who spoke up at a January public hearing, where city engineer Eric Cabrera called L.A. Outdoor’s ballsy stunt an “egregious disregard of the law.”
Onlookers recall that when an attorney representing L.A. Outdoor stood to defend the sign, Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety Commission President Marsha Brown, a political appointee of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s, spat: “Your client should go to jail!”
But Brown’s comment was just talk.
The mayor and Los Angeles City Council have let the billboard industry flout the law — in this case, a flat-out 2002 ban on new billboards — so openly that activists in other big cities laugh out loud when they hear the latest tales. (“Your business people need to speak up!” Margaret Lloyd, Houston’s leading anti-billboard activist, declared — while giggling over how incompetent L.A.’s leaders are. “Everyone loses!”)
Indeed, for its crime, L.A. Outdoor was “cited” and “ordered” to take down the illegal billboard “immediately.” Five months later, that billboard still looms large. City Hall has caved to outdoor advertisers for so many years that L.A. Outdoor is touting the illegal billboard in a photo array on its Web site — a bleak reminder that billboards run amuck here, and their owners enjoy impunity.
“I have gone past the outrage phase. Now, it is just absurd,” says critic Hathaway, pointing to the 60-foot-high tanker-truck-sized billboard near Albany Street and 12th Place, south of downtown. “It’s obvious that companies feel it’s worth the cost, or they wouldn’t keep doing it.”
What cost? Billboard companies reap roughly $14,000 a month in easy money from a double-sided standard-size 14-by-48-foot billboard that costs about $50,000 to $80,000 to build. And they earn up to $128,000 monthly from "digital" billboards, oil wells in the sky that, when fully leased with ads, will earn $1.34 billion a year for L.A.'s billboard giants. These riches will flow to the very firms that have vociferously fought paying a single penny into an annual, modest, $186-per-billboard municipal fee — which their lawyers hammered down from $314.
City Hall politicians know there’s just one way to wrest control of the streets: by getting their hands, once and for all, on an inventory list of the owners and locations of thousands of illegal billboards and then forcing the companies to remove them.
That hasn’t happened — not under Mayor Richard Riordan, not under Mayor James Hahn. Not under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Today, Villaraigosa, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Council President Eric Garcetti are utterly in the dark about “the List” — the actual locations and owners of illegal billboards. Only two elected leaders, Council members Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel, make it a point to express public outrage.
Department of Building and Safety officials don’t even enforce the $186 “inspection fee” on each legal and illegal billboard — enacted six long years ago under the Hahn administration and long resisted by several firms.
Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor, Vista and others use the legal system as a delaying tactic, filing lawsuit upon lawsuit. City officials so badly fear the wrath of the billboard companies that they resisted giving L.A. Weekly basic, public facts about existing legal and illegal billboards. Plenty of U.S. cities have required the firms to hand over their inventory lists — a necessary step before activists, neighbors and inspectors can ID and dispute illegal billboards. Houston forced its billboard companies to hand over a list. So did Philadelphia and San Francisco. Florida''s Department of Transportation obtained its list — in 1972.
But in Los Angeles, the newspaper had to hire a First Amendment attorney to obtain simple information from quaking workers at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, a taxpayer-funded agency that deals almost exclusively in public data. For months, department spokesman Robert Steinbach refused to talk, behaving as if he were protecting the national security.
Unlike Houston, Philadelphia, Tucson and San Francisco, in L.A., big and small outdoor advertisers often ignore the ban on new billboards or blatantly blow past restrictions on their existing signs — illegally doubling the size, or adding a second face.
The bizarre lawlessness has gone on so long City Hall has no idea if the estimated 4,000 illegal billboards are even safe. Keith Stephens, owner of L.A. Outdoor, who erected the illegal billboard just before Thanksgiving, insists he used legit building inspectors to assure its safety. The real reason he built it on the sly was to poke City Hall in the eye for blatantly rewarding the owners of potentially thousands of illegal billboards — his much richer competitors, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor. “All the city is doing is handing the keys to two companies,” huffs Stephens.
Billboard activist Hathaway says that, in a normal world, “an inspector would have had to look at the excavation and sign off before any concrete was poured. There’s no way to know if it has the proper structural integrity and won’t topple onto the freeway.”
But this is not a normal world. L.A. is an unregulated, out-of-control playground for the illegal-billboard industry, second to no other urban area in America. For instance Vista Outdoor three years ago admitted they were “unable to locate” permits for 500 smaller billboards and agreed to take them down but L.A. building officials openly admit today they have no clue whether they were removed. Ten years ago, Regency, another billboard company, accused Clear Channel of reaping $5 million from illegal billboards.
Punishment for L.A. Outdoor was never in the cards. Jail, laughable. Villaraigosa, Delgadillo and the City Council are, in fact, doing the opposite: They are richly rewarding three billboard firms — CBS, Clear Channel and Regency — quietly letting them erect 877 pulsating, ultrabright, light-emitting-diode advertising signs in dozens of unsuspecting neighborhoods citywide. And now, a month after Councilman Reyes proposed a windfall for billboard firms — a new “sign district” allowing megasigns downtown — Councilman Herb Wesson is demanding a much bigger special district in Koreatown. One big reason the City Council is so keen to create special “sign districts” filled with street clutter: Richard Alarcon, Tony Cardenas, Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Janice Hahn, Jose Huizar, Tom LaBonge, Bernard Parks, Jan Perry, Ed Reyes, Bill Rosendahl, Greig Smith, Jack Weiss, Herb Wesson, Dennis Zine and the mayor have all accepted campaign funds from the industry they have failed to regulate.
The digital-billboard makeover of L.A. was concocted behind closed doors by Delgadillo a little more than a year ago and approved with little notice by the City Council. As a result, few Angelenos realize that these animated billboards, visible for more than a mile, are coming to their areas. Those who do know are furious.
“It’s as if someone’s plasma TV is outside our window,” says Roberta Dacks, who is fully 10 blocks away from a hyperintense LED billboard that suddenly appeared at Cahuenga and Barham boulevards. City leaders, from Garcetti to Delgadillo, call the garish displays “modernizations.”
Is chronic incompetence or indifference at City Hall to blame for what is now unfolding? Could long-rumored but never proven corruption be playing a role? With Angelenos about to get an eyeful from 877 LED billboards, those questions take center stage in a battle over billboards gone wild.
The current billboard battle dates from the 1980s, when then–City Council aide Cindy Miscikowski and her boss, the late Councilman Marvin Braude, tried to ban new billboards. They failed but made small inroads. “I told him we were making progress,” she recalls. “There was no reason we needed [more billboards].”
But construction unions showed up in City Council chambers to complain that they would be unemployed. With historic highs in murder and street crime unfolding in the ’80s, billboard clutter was barely on city leaders’ radar.
“Most of the people couldn’t care less,” recalls Ted Wu, an architect. The soft-spoken Wu became an unlikely crusader, the go-to guy against billboard companies. In 1984, he helped the City Council toughen the codes and worked to pass a law preventing billboards from appearing within 600 feet of each other. Along the way, he met activist Gerry Silver, a now-retired professor of business administration at Long Beach City College.
Silver and Wu in the 1990s decried the lack of height regulations on new, towering billboards being placed atop L.A. buildings. When the City Council heard about the activist pair, it ordered then–City Attorney James Hahn to stop the two concerned citizens; then major billboard firms joined the council’s effort.
“We got pummeled by a huge amount of paperwork and pleadings,” recalls Silver with disgust. “Our volunteer attorney couldn’t handle it ... I couldn’t even keep up with the reading. We ended up withdrawing the litigation. That is the story of fighting the billboard people. They were tigers — and we were hummingbirds.”
The graying and affable twosome, two modest Davids up against wealthy, multinational Goliaths, are chatting at a Maui Wowi restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, just below a billboard that, unknown to most neighbors, will soon glow with ultrabright, constantly changing digital ads visible far down the boulevard. Says Wu: “There are a couple of more things that will make your hair stand up.”
While other cities launched highly effective billboard crackdowns, Los Angeles was mired in petty City Council rivalries. Braude’s final effort to ban new billboards, for instance, lost during an 8-7 decision, with ticked-off Councilman Nate Holden acting as the swing “no” vote.
As Holden recently told the Weekly, “Braude had just shafted me” on an issue unrelated to billboards. Holden giggles wickedly as he recalls, “They were putting in all these monstrosities. Those big apartment buildings ... I said, ‘Let’s not destroy the neighborhood and let’s have a moratorium and change the ordinance.’ ”
But “Braude and [Councilman Michael] Woo, the so-called environmentalists, were the two people who voted against” Holden. “I thought [Braude] was a hypocrite, so I voted against [the ban on billboards]. These damn hypocrites — I will teach you!”
Meanwhile more organized cities like Houston, and Jacksonville, Florida, took the lead. In 1980, Houston banned billboards after local newspaper articles dubbed it the “ugliest city in America” thanks to its sea of 10,000 billboards. “We were so ugly, we couldn’t get businesses to relocate to Houston,” remembers Margaret Lloyd, policy adviser for the Scenic Houston movement. “It was simply because we had the vision in the ’80s to stop it.”
A similar movement grew in Jacksonville, where residents overwhelmingly voted to ban new billboards in 1987. Despite a booming population and new development, the city is far less cluttered than it was 21 years ago, because it has 1,000 fewer billboards.
In 2001, Councilman Jack Weiss called for a yearly billboard-inspection fee on billboard owners, which would finance a long-overdue city inventory of thousands of the signs bristling along the streets.
Weiss had some pretty simple questions: Who owned them? Which ones were illegal?
But Weiss, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, proved no match for the ossified L.A. bureaucracy. Department of Building and Safety general manager Andrew Adelman, hired in 1997, was employing just two inspectors to police billboards across 469 square miles of territory.
“The building department said, ‘We are vigorously enforcing the sign laws in the city,’ ” Wu notes. “A couple of us looked at each other and almost choked.”
Now, L.A. — whose $7 billion budget includes the highest city council salaries in the U.S., at $171,000 — employs just three billboard inspectors.
In response to criticism, Adelman’s inspectors in 1999 tried to survey a single stretch of Pico Boulevard. Five years later, during one of the many lawsuits brought by billboard companies to stop the city from regulating them, an attorney for Clear Channel Outdoor asked about it. Inspector David Keim couldn’t recall how many signs on Pico were illegal — or provide proof of how the department estimated that 40 percent of L.A.’s boards were illegal. Keim admitted that the city “database” was completely incapable of tracking violations.
A 2001 Building and Safety report called for hiring nearly 50 new city workers — including 39 inspectors — to help shut down the wave of illegal billboards. At the time, building officials openly admitted that it took them two hours to track down a single permit in their byzantine filing system.
That was seven years ago. Today, the estimated time to track down a single permit in City Hall’s files? Two hours.
L.A.’s predicament is a lesson in how money — and threats of lawsuits — definitely talks in politics. In 2001, the same year Adelman said L.A. needed 39 billboard inspectors, outdoor-advertising companies donated more than $400,000 in billboard space touting “Rocky Delgadillo for City Attorney.” Billboard opponent Mike Feuer, challenging Delgadillo for the city attorney’s job, lost. In other years, gigantic ads promoting Mayor James Hahn and council candidates Tony Cardenas and Jan Perry also appeared.
Now a state assemblyman, Feuer recalls, “There were obviously political consequences to be paid for fighting billboards.”
The city has spent huge sums on underground wiring and landscaped medians to beautify streets. Yet from Reseda and Palms to Boyle Heights and Echo Park, cruddy billboards seem to make those efforts pointless. Miscikowski, an art collector who lives in a beautiful enclave in Brentwood, believed Angelenos did not want to live with so much ugliness. She successfully pushed through the 2002 billboard ban, but it allows a major exception that is now coming home to roost: the special “sign districts” like those proposed by Reyes and Wesson.
Under the 2002 ban, it looked like Los Angeles was going to go after the blight. The city even hired 20 billboard inspectors. But a month later, outdoor advertisers Vista Media, Regency, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor won a federal injunction to stop the inspection program, on the grounds that it violated their constitutional rights and that the $314 fee was excessive. The 20 billboard inspectors vanished.
“They didn’t even get a chance to start,” Hathaway recalls. “They hired the people, then — bam! — the companies found a sympathetic judge.”
But then the federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the judge, ruling that the billboard firms failed to show that a “fee” increase would cause them “constitutional harm.” It was the biggest victory against the billboard industry in Los Angeles, opening the way to finally create a list of lawless billboards and shut down the practice.
But Delgadillo, Hahn and, later, Villaraigosa, wimped out. Instead of holding the billboard companies’ feet to the fire with an effective fee, inspection plan and crackdown, Delgadillo agreed to “settlement” meetings with high-powered billboard-industry attorneys. Those meetings led to a new megadeal that heaps rewards on a select few billboard companies.
The deals with Vista, Clear Channel, CBS and Regency mystified experts in the billboard wars, setting off rampant speculation since 2005 that city leaders are shills for billboard companies, and that Delgadillo has been corrupted by accepting free billboard ads promoting his campaign.
“The city settled with the industry even though they were winning in the courts,” recalls Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit advocacy group. From the outside, it appeared that Delgadillo had lost control of the talks, then agreed to concessions that, Fry says, “had nothing to do with the original issue in the lawsuit. [The lawsuit the city won] was about fees.” But “the settlement went way beyond that.”
One of the more incredible terms approved by Delgadillo, the City Council and Villaraigosa gives two billboard companies six years to take down just 98 nuisance billboards — just 3 percent of their inventory.
The billboard owners were even allowed to choose those they wanted to get rid of, Fry says. “It was so minuscule.... The billboard companies will take out the least-performing, least-profitable signs. We found the settlement unsettling — and bizarre.”
Delgadillo and the City Council buckled even further, slashing the inspection fee to $186 per structure. Moreover, the deal rewards misbehavior by CBS, Clear Channel and others by grandfathering in an unknown number of illegal billboards that were standing before 1986. Gary Mobley, an attorney representing smaller firms who got no such deal, calls the Villaraigosa administration’s decision to look the other way “insidious” and “unconscionable.”
But the biggest coup was the quiet move by Delgadillo, the City Council and the mayor, still widely unknown to L.A. residents, to let the offending companies “modernize” 877 billboards by transforming them into highly lucrative, controversial, ultrabright LED displays.
The deal will affect scores of neighborhoods, introducing large LED signs said to be visible even through drawn curtains. The agreement was reached so quietly that even Wu, Hathaway and Silver — the Davids fighting the giants — heard about it too late to stop it.
As Delgadillo and the City Council met behind closed doors in late 2006, in fact, Dennis Hathaway was getting ready to personally test the city’s archaic billboard-policing system. His modest goal? To discover the “permit status” of 120 billboards jammed along one of L.A.’s ugliest streets, Lincoln Boulevard between Marina del Rey and Santa Monica. After spending six hours wading through microfiche at the Department of Building and Safety offices on Figueroa Street and finding just two permits on Lincoln, Hathaway gave up.
“There are cases in which a billboard appears to be at one address, and there’s no permit listed for that address, but for a nearby address, which doesn’t appear to have any billboard,” Hathaway says.
Outraged by the closed-door settlement and years of apathy from Building and Safety boss Adelman and the City Council, Wu, Silver and Hathaway formed the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight in 2006. Their goal was to raise money to challenge the settlements that are ushering in digital billboards and grandfathering in an unknown number of illegal, pre-1986 billboards. They filed a lawsuit last year but lost when the judge ruled that “residents of the city don’t have an economic interest,” says Wu , frowning at the memory. “All of those formal filings cost us almost $15,000. It is a situation that you need a lot of money [to fight]. Our enemy has very deep pockets, so they can go on forever.”
The settlements required very, very little of the billboard owners: They were supposed to hand over, at long last, “the List” — the addresses of their legal and illegal billboards and other minor concessions.
But the City Council soon learned that Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor were insisting on keeping the inventory list out of the public’s hands, claiming the sign locations were a trade secret. Greuel and Weiss were peeved over such arrogance from big firms that had just received a billion-dollar windfall from City Hall in the form of digital-billboards approvals. So, led by Weiss and Greuel, the council declared in January 2007 that the List was not a trade secret.
But again, the city was at odds with itself. The next month, Deputy City Attorney Steve Blau assured the billboard companies that Building and Safety did not have a database in which a billboard owner’s name could be searched — and that there were no plans to create such a usable system.
“It was the worst settlement agreement I have seen in my entire life,” says First Amendment and land-use attorney Bill Brinton, who led the settlement efforts for Jacksonville and more than a dozen cities. While Council President Garcetti and others brag about getting a paltry 98 of 11,000 billboards removed, Jacksonville had “more than 1,000 billboards removed,” recalls Brinton. “We hung tough. I think Jacksonville is a far more beautiful city because we got a handle on the billboard problem 20 years ago. We didn’t make the types of mistakes Los Angeles did.... We didn’t take what they offered.”
Handing Clear Channel, CBS and Regency a lucrative digital-signage deal “seemed to violate every basic rule on reaching agreements with the industry,” Brinton says. Los Angeles granted them “rights beyond their wildest dreams, which they couldn’t get through legislation.”
“It is really incredible, what happened.”
Brinton thinks the 15-member City Council hurriedly embraced the deal without bothering to understand those details, listening instead to Delgadillo, who he says was too quick to hand goodies to the firms: “I wonder if Rocky really understood the consequences.”
Brinton says critics like Wu and Silver are now realizing: “We are losing everything we fought so hard for 20 years ago.” His prediction: “Every time a billboard gets ‘upgraded’ [to a digital ad], it will create controversy.”
Last year, Weiss called the deal a “hold-your-nose agreement,” but Council President Garcetti took the opposite tack, criticizing the media for “beating up on the idea of a settlement.”
Deputy City Attorney Blau had promised council members the inspection program would result in the “immediate” removal of a large number of billboards, and creation of the List. That, it turns out, was just more talk.
“I thought that was as likely to happen as the sun rising in the west,” chuckles Hathaway. “They cook up deals out of the public eye. Half the time it is too late and there’s a big problem. The billboard problem is about how the city does business.”
After the settlement deals were allowed by Villaraigosa, records show, Building and Safety bureaucrats told Clear Channel and CBS that they had no intention of quickly starting up the promised billboard inspections. Sighing, Weiss says, “It sure seems to me that it can be up and running today.”
The Building and Safety bureaucracy, led by general manager Adelman, instead appears to be digging in its heels against the promised crackdown. In a weird two-page report sent to Weiss in December and again in February, Adelman claimed that “due to various litigation actions” the inspections and fees never got off the ground.
The strange thing is, nothing in the courts prevents the city from collecting these fees. CBS spokesman Ryan Brooks — who denies the company owns illegal billboards — says, “We haven’t done anything to prevent them from starting,” a claim that Clear Channel echoes.
After a dozen calls by the Weekly to Building and Safety spokesman Robert Steinbach, the rep deepened the mystery, replying by e-mail: “There are current lawsuits which challenge various aspects of the inspection program and associated fees.”
Despite his double talk, there is nothing stopping the bureaucrats from at long last getting to the bottom of the illegal billboard inventory — except the bureaucrats. Delgadillo’s office says that today, no litigation stands in the way.
In court papers filed last month, representatives from Clear Channel and CBS reported that they have never been asked by the city to pay the fees. In what some critics say is a case of “Stockholm Syndrome,” the Building and Safety Department — which failed to prevent a prominent illegal billboard from being erected last November in view of their own offices — behaves like an adjunct of the very companies that have cowed them for years.
In fact, in documents obtained by the Weekly, CBS Outdoor consultant Andrew Goodman said he had delivered a box of permits to building inspector Brad Neighbors, who, Goodman stated, “told me that he would not share the information with anyone else.” Yet it is public information.
“As bad as the settlement was, the implementation of it is totally one-sided,” says activist Hathaway. “The billboard companies are going ahead with their [digital] entitlements.”
The fact that the 2007 billboard crackdown was stillborn did not come to light — few members of the City Council knew of it — until the Weekly sent a California Public Records request to Building and Safety a few weeks ago, asking for the List. Instead of providing it, building inspectors quickly alerted the billboard giants about the Weekly’s interest.
Tipped off by city employees, Clear Channel and CBS promptly sought an injunction to prevent the Weekly from getting the List.
In a letter to the Weekly, an attorney representing Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor questioned the List’s “news value.” Then, perhaps under the misimpression that they are now part of City Hall, the two corporations informed the Weekly that they wouldn’t object if the city released very, very broad public data — such as how many citizen complaints were filed against all billboards in 2007.
Pissed off that building department officials — and Delgadillo’s office as well — had alerted the two corporations to the newspaper’s request for public information, a month ago Weiss and Greuel asked Delgadillo why the List, ordered by the council more than a year ago, had not been produced.
“They can’t do enforcement if they don’t have the inventory [list]!” howls Scenic Houston’s Lloyd. “It is standard operating procedure for a city to ask a billboard company to file their inventory every year.... It’s not a shocking requirement.”
Lloyd erupts in more laughter over the absurdity of the excuses given — and accepted — within Los Angeles City Hall. Hoots Lloyd: “It is an asset of the company!”
Philadelphia posts its billboard list on its city Web site, www.phila.gov. That city’s Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, or SCRUB (www.urbanblight.org), goes further, offering a billboard “finder” that highlights in red all unlicensed billboards. The Florida Department of Transportation maintains an “Outdoor Advertising Database” of the 17,000 billboards along its federal and state roadways. The database, updated monthly, provides the address, owner, height, number of “faces” and permit status — plus a recent photo.
“It has turned out to pay dividends for us,” says John Garner, of the Florida Department of Transportation. “If [billboard firms] know what we have in the database, it reduces litigation and collection time.”
In a landslide vote in 2002, San Francisco citizens approved Proposition G to ban all new billboards and require the companies to hand over their inventory lists. But when a nonprofit group sought the lists in 2007, CBS and Clear Channel, using the rolling litigation strategy that has let them operate with impunity in L.A., persuaded a judge to issue a restraining order.
On April 2, a Los Angeles jurist saw things differently. Judge James Chalfant rejected CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor’s claim that billboard locations and other information are a trade secret not to be shared with the public or media. Chalfant told the two ad giants: “Your competitor has the same right to the list.”
But the powers-that-be found a way around Chalfant’s order. Last month, city bureaucrats handed the Weekly a heavily “redacted spreadsheet” in which each company provided the street addresses of more than 1,500 billboards they own — but did not indicate which ones violate the rules.
Five weeks ago, Rocky Delgadillo was the guest of honor at a party hosted by veteran billboard lobbyist Ken Spiker Jr. While guests snacked on gourmet cheeses in the opulent patio garden of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Hathaway and a handful of activists picketed on Doheny Drive, carrying signs that read: “Rocky Sold Us Out,” “Illegal Billboards Must Go” and “More Sky Less Signs.”
After Delgadillo’s handler, Nick Velasquez, tried to appease the ragtag band, telling a Channel 11 reporter that the city attorney is not a billboard advocate, a strangely jolly Delgadillo joined the protestors on the sidewalk, declaring that the soiree unfolding inside wasn’t even “about” billboards.
Clearly enjoying the rare attention from journalists, he jovially pledged, “I am on your side ... I have a bill in Sacramento ... I need the facts ... Let’s get together and solve this problem.” One activist called out, “What about the appearance of this?” referring to his campaign help from the billboard industry and his decision to associate with billboard lobbyist Spiker. Hollered another: “When the settlement was made, it was made behind closed doors!”
“No, it wasn’t,” retorted Delgadillo. Before ducking back inside, he added, “and thanks for being here.”
Delgadillo is a favorite target of billboard detractors for talking big but rarely acting. Last year, a month after City Hall’s quiet settlement with billboard firms, Delgadillo announced at a splashy press conference “tough new legislation” to close loopholes that protect owners of illegal billboards if they have not been cited in five years.
“He didn’t make a peep about it again,” Hathaway recalls. “He had such a bad reputation on these lawsuit settlements, he was trying for some good PR. He gets some media coverage, then lets it twist in the wind and die.”
Says Delgadillo spokesman Velasquez, “We hope to bring it back this year.”
Now, fueled by the closed-door deal with CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor and Regency, the city faces lawsuits by other billboard companies clamoring to build bright digital billboards in L.A. Mobley, the attorney representing firms like Summit Media, demands to know why “companies and individuals who buy political favors” got the digital billboards and other goodies. Smaller companies want the sweetheart deal, including grandfathering in their 22-year-old billboards.
Says First Amendment attorney Brinton, “What a surprise. Was the Los Angeles City Council not thinking about this when they approved the agreement?”
Keith Stephens erected his screw-you City Hall billboard just before Thanksgiving because, he says with annoyance, he has “never been given an equal seat at the table,” so why shouldn’t he put up illegal billboards?
An attorney with Delgadillo’s office says the City Council is to blame. “That settlement is supposed to make 98 [bill]boards come down,” says the attorney, who asked not to be identified. “Is that a fair deal? The city [council] looked at that and voted on it. If they didn’t want it, they could have rejected it.”
“Give me a break,” spits Weiss, slamming Delgadillo: “They drove the negotiation. They recommended the settlement. They did it and basically said, ‘Take it or leave it.’”
Los Angeles politicians seem not to learn from their mistakes. On April 22, the City Council voted to let Clear Channel erect two precedent-setting, monster-size billboards along the 10 freeway, ending a golden era in which that stretch was protected from billboard blight.
In explaining the council’s largesse, the Los Angeles Times, KPCC radio and others reported that Clear Channel would contribute a portion of its revenues toward a wetlands park in Jan Perry''s council district.
Except that’s not true. Eva Kandarpa, spokeswoman for Perry, confirmed to the Weekly that Clear Channel is not contributing a dime to Perry’s park. For its part, Clear Channel is merely agreeing to drop a lawsuit it had filed against the MTA — a good example of how the firm’s chronic litigiousness pays off, since Clear Channel will earn up to $3.3 million a year in ad revenue from the freeway billboards.
The monster-billboards idea was unanimously rejected by the city’s Planning Commission, whose members all realized such a deal could flood City Hall with requests from other billboard firms wanting the same kind of choice real estate along the 10. In a letter to Council President Garcetti, outspoken Planning Commission President Jane Usher warned city leaders were setting a “billboard precedent. This case is not truly about providing a much-needed park in the heart of Los Angeles.”
Billboard activists elsewhere marvel that a city with the power and money of Los Angeles could have such apparently clueless and co-opted leaders. “If they really wanted to tackle this, with leadership from the mayor on down, the city would look differently,” says Mary Tracy of SCRUBS. “It is too hard to take money and then ... enforce the law.”
Hathaway, Wu and Silver won’t give up while far more powerful people buckle. Their Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight is gearing up to fight state Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod’s bill to let companies replace some highway billboards with digital displays that flip images every six seconds — another huge revenue windfall critics say the public almost certainly wouldn’t support.
The three modest clutter-fighters are also poised to attack the installment on Ventura Boulevard — a block from Silver’s house — of an LED billboard whose flashing imagery, they believe, poses a safety hazard on a crowded street filled with distractions.
“I feel like the snowball is rolling and it is picking up,” says a grinning Hathaway, as he drives along billboard-infested streets, pointing out signs and buildings wrapped with “supergraphics” he suspects are illegal. Later, he forwards the Weekly an e-mail he sent to an executive at L.A. Outdoor Advertising, razzing him for the illegal billboard stunt pulled last November.
“It’s totally illegal,” his message to L.A. Outdoor reads. “The building department’s order to remove it was upheld by the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners. You have a lot of gall to blatantly violate the law this way, then flaunt it on your Web page.”
Unfortunately, no one is listening.