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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.”