By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In interviews with L.A. Weekly, elected leaders paint a picture of confusion and ignorance that led to their 2006 unanimous vote to grant broad new rights to the digital-ad companies. Some City Council members, seven of whom, along with Villaraigosa, are seeking re-election March 3, say they have no recollection of why they agreed to the dramatic digital makeover of the city’s streets.
Hollywood-area Councilman Tom LaBonge says he is trying to retrace his steps: “I am looking at my daily calendar for that day. I don’t recall it being a lengthy discussion at all,” such as the council often engages in over matters its members do find important “like an accident with a fire truck, or a police matter.” Asked to consider jumping into a new form of mass advertising that affects hundreds of thousands of city residents, LaBonge says, “We just took it, and obviously many of us regret it. It seems like this city has never had a successful strategy with billboards.”
Council member Dennis Zine is equally clueless about what happened that day. “I can’t recall back that far,” he says. “When we discussed digital, I don’t think anyone had a clear idea of what it was about. It was new to me.”
Sounding like a small-town denizen bewildered by newfangled technology, Zine adds, “I don’t know if any of us saw how bright they would be. It’s a whole new world. I had never seen it before, so I don’t know how we would have known what it is. I thought it would be one advertisement on the board.”
When L.A. Weekly told Zine that, beyond that failure, the Council approved specific wording that allows digital billboards to be called mere “modernizations” — and thus not subject to basic environmental review or zoning restrictions — he openly scoffed, “It is a major change, not a minor alteration. It’s like having a wagon versus a car!”
City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo played a key role in bringing the deal to the Council two years ago. But much of the responsibility also lies with Councilman Garcetti, the fresh-faced enviro who runs the council with a strong hand, pushes hard for unanimous votes, and rewards his favored members with plum committee assignments.
Garcetti, who for five years has tooled around L.A. in an EV1 electric car, long ignored criticism of the sweetheart deal he helped to push through. Despite outcry from Valley, Hollywood and Westside residents, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago, amidst the erupting anger in Silver Lake — in a neighborhood not far from Garcetti’s own, where he has many friends — that Garcetti, a billboard enabler, began to question himself.
“It was probably a mistake," Garcetti told The New York Times on Nov. 5. A week later, he went further, telling L.A. Weekly," It was a really bad decision," in which he was "blinded" by a promise that some illegal billboards in his own area, Echo Park, would be removed.
In mid-November, under a hail of public criticism, the city Planning Commission backed a six-month moratorium to halt the 800 digital billboards still to come. But even the moratorium is being watered down, freighted with 26 special "exceptions." Although the City Council is expected to vote on the moratorium soon, LaBonge admits that disgusted residents in many neighborhoods have made it clear that digital billboards “have absolutely been rejected by the people.”
Not that it matters. Because the Council approved the LED deal without understanding what it said or meant, LaBonge concedes, “We did lose our ability to control proliferation. And I was part of the team that lost the ability because of the settlement.”
How is it possible that commercial advertising that can change a bedroom’s color scheme or be viewed for miles has no “environmental impact”? How could a purportedly green mayor and City Council dominated by “green” politicians have allowed such an anti-community onslaught?
The answer is a tale of incompetence on the part of city officials, and arrogance on the part of billboard companies that hammered away at local laws using top legal guns like First Amendment guru Laurence Tribe. And it’s complicated by the old story of money, in the form of campaign contributions from the billboard companies to every single elected official involved. Villaraigosa, Delgadillo and Garcetti thought they could play nice, cutting a deal with the big boys of billboard advertising and come out ahead. A growing chorus of critics now says they were wrong.
For weeks this fall, Garcetti seemed stunned by what he and the City Council had unleashed. Long a backer of supersized outdoor advertising, Garcetti suddenly switched sides. Pilloried by residents of Silver Lake, he wrote a motion asking Delgadillo and the Department of Building and Safety to pursue environmental and legal options regarding the Silver Lake sign, and asked Delgadillo to explore avenues to limit billboard blight in residential neighborhoods. He also contacted Clear Channel, and later informed Silver Lake residents that the company agreed to dim the Silver Lake Boulevard billboard in the evening, and completely turn it off at midnight.
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