By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
ABC’s permit sailed through the city bureaucracy as easily, it seems, as it slid through the City Council. According to a May 17, 1999, memorandum prepared by Gregory L. Scott, director of the Bureau of Street Services, for Rita Walters, "In terms of determining which banners are commercial and therefore prohibited from display on rights of way in the City, it has been the practice of the Bureau of Street Services to forward questionable banner text [copy] to the Office of the City Attorney for a legal opinion where there is any question about commerciality."
But, says Christopher M. Westhoff, the assistant city attorney whose office is supposed to vet banners, "Nobody has run them by me." Not ABC’s banners — or anyone else’s, Westhoff says. "But," he adds, "I daresay they will in future."
The processing of banners, Westhoff concedes, has been politicized: "Banner requests go through council because they feel they [have] the political leverage for the okay."
Take those garish Dodgers banners, the ones featuring the lineup of imploding millionaires, for example. In 1996, Councilman Mike Hernandez asked the City Council to allow the Dodgers to hoist their 35th-season-at-Dodgers-Stadium campaign aloft city property — for the entire baseball season, from March to September. Despite the municipal-code ban, and despite the Board of Public Works’ own rules and regulations appearing to limit permits to "events which serve a civic and public interest" and restricting a company name or logo to no more than half the banner, Hernandez was able to convince the council that "it was important to promote the Dodgers. Quite frankly, I was looking at the Dodgers as Los Angeles," Hernandez explained last week. "When you are promoting an event, you are promoting the city."
It is exactly that kind of bland, sweeping appeal to civic pride that has allowed the law to be set aside, time and again. In June 1998, for instance, downtown powerhouse attorney Alan Rothenberg’s privately owned sports franchise, Major League Soccer, got 400 banners by persuading the council that MLS would build sports facilities in needy neighborhoods. In October 1998, Universal got 350 banners by attaching the Children’s Defense Fund to its premiere of Babe: Pig in the City. Merely by declaring the 26th Annual Music Awards a "special event," Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas got Dick Clark Productions 350 banners. At the end of 1998, Staples Center got permission to raise 558 banners and keep them in place throughout most of 1999. In June of this year, the U.S. Tennis Association, "a not-for-profit organization," got 100 banners for the "Mercedes-Benz Cup." And so it goes. The Academy Awards got 150, the Grammys 500, the Emmys 600.
And all that ad space, consisting of dozens of thoroughfares festooned with thousands of banners and reaching key demographics, is free. ABC, which paid $46,000, was the exception (although, by returning ABC’s check, the city, for now, has given the yellow-and-black network its ads gratis). Murdoch’s Dodgers not only pay nothing for their 475 banners, but they can decorate L.A. lampposts for 180 days — three times the duration of a normal permit. At $46 per banner per 60-day permit, the handout to the Dodgers is worth $65,550. According to the Bureau of Street Services’ report to Rita Walters, in fiscal year 1997-1998 the city waived $914,951 in banner fees, while collecting just $45,242 in paid permits. That’s a ratio of 20 to 1 — much of the subsidy flowing to some of the area’s richest businesses.
"Thousands of dollars from the general fund go to finance these companies and their advertisements," says Rita Walters. "Let them make a cash donation directly to the charity rather than ask us to hang banners with their advertisements."
Although the city now has its 30-day moratorium, reform has an uncertain future. Walters is pushing the council to adopt new standards, reducing the space devoted to sponsors from 50 percent to 25 percent, and shortening the time banners can be posted to just 30 days. She also wants to eliminate fee waivers. But Jackie Goldberg, who says she "likes the non-commercial policy," believes that there will continue to be advertisements: "Every city in America fights to have these events, like the Grammys, the Academy Awards, MTV. We see that as naked self interest."
Whether or not city policy changes, or existing law is enforced, says Howard Furst of AAA Flag & Banner, "every banner we put up is advertising. Nobody would be buying banners if they weren’t thinking it is advertising."