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Billboards Gone Wild: 4,000 Illegal Billboards Choke L.A.'s Neighborhoods 

Is City Hall corrupt, or just inept?

Wednesday, Apr 23 2008
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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.

Ted Soqui

Flipping off City Hall: L.A. Outdoor’s illegal billboard is accented by sneakers signifying drugs are sold nearby.

Rena Kosnett

Billboard warriors Ted Wu and Gerald Silver: "We were hummingbirds."

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.”

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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.

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