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
But by the time the powerful City Council president had taken an interest, it was two years too late. Residents want the signs gone, but an estimated 50 recently switched-on LED displays — the behemoth at the intersection of Topanga Canyon and Victory boulevards that can be seen from a Santa Monica Mountains overlook; or a piercing sign that floods a bedroom in Cahuenga Pass — are almost certainly here to stay.
They are unaffected by the six-month moratorium now under consideration. Legal experts say that the eyesore will loom over charming Silver Lake Boulevard for years. And Garcetti is already lowering expectations, using the term "extremist" to describe any plan to actually ban LED billboards.
Last April, L.A. Weekly revealed in its cover story “Billboards Gone Wild,” a long parade of ill-fated choices that has turned Los Angeles into the center of the illegal billboard industry in the United States. Today, 11,000 billboards bristle along L.A.’s boulevards, streets and avenues, 4,000 of them illegal, some possibly unsafe.
Few environmentalists or anti-clutter activists trust Villaraigosa, Delgadillo or Garcetti to hold tough, once the proposed moratorium ends in mid-2009. For years, their efforts to address L.A.’s worsening clutter have sputtered and backfired, including Garcetti’s televised — and, it turns out, hollow — public vow two years ago to remove 15 illegal billboards on Echo Park Boulevard not far from his own "green" home recently featured in Dwell magazine. He has managed to remove just two.
Other cities, like Seattle, Houston and Philadelphia, have cleaned up billboard blight, wiping out the visual pollution and creating attractive boulevards and neighborhoods. Not Los Angeles. Current and past mayors and city councils have continually capitulated to pressure from billboard interests — but even more so since the firms hauled L.A. into court in 2002 over a modest $314 inspection fee the city hoped to collect. The money was to be spent determining the locations of all 4,000 illegal billboards, then take them down.
The fee was fought hard through the courts by Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor, Regency Outdoor and Vista Media, but ultimately a federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed that the big firms had failed to show how a small fee would cause them “constitutional harm.”
The 2004 9th Circuit ruling was a major victory for people who were sick of L.A.’s ugly, ad-cluttered neighborhoods, and its singular reputation as the center of the illegal billboard industry. Neighborhood leaders eagerly waited for City Hall to release a document identifying the 7,000 legal and 4,000 lawless billboards, whose locations were known only to the advertising firms.
But then, something strange, and still widely misunderstood, occurred. Delgadillo, a major recipient of billboard-company largesse during his campaign for office, having beat the billboard giants in the 9th Circuit ruling, two years later inexplicably agreed to “settlement” meetings with the companies’ high-powered attorneys.
Nobody — not Villaraigosa, Garcetti or any of the other City Hall politicians who have taken money from outdoor advertisers or received free campaign billboard ads from them — publicly questioned Delgadillo’s behavior. He brought to the City Council a “settlement” he had hammered out with Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor. The odd deal, never debated by the neighborhoods it would affect, was quickly accepted by Garcetti and the council, and signed by Villaraigosa.
Today, there is little disagreement that it was a major capitulation to the billboard giants, unparalled in the United States. Yet Garcetti is still confused, claiming a few weeks ago on KPPC radio that the settlement allowing digital conversions was a result of the city losing its case in court.)
In fact, the city won. (Garcetti now tells the Weekly, "it is embarrassing" that he, the Council, Villaraigosa and Delgadillo all settled, knowing they had won in court.
The settlement requires Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor to each take down 3 percent, or just 49 of their 1,657 and 1,628 signs, respectively, and to provide City Hall with a list revealing all billboard locations so building and safety inspectors can begin a long delayed inspection effort. The firms also agreed to pay a tiny fee every three years: $186 per existing traditional (not digital) billboard — a rate curiously knocked down from the hard-fought fee of $314. For doing all this, the companies got a favor back: the right to “digitally modify” hundreds of traditional billboards.
It was all explained in a two-page report handed out to council members and unanimously approved. But none of the requirements came with any teeth. None of the billboards were removed, and the list of thousands of illegal signs was never forthcoming. No fees were paid. No inspection program began.
Where was the City Council in all of this? Its members are the highest paid City Council in the nation at a salary of $171,648 a year. Each has a personal staff of about 20 aides , yet they even failed to restrict the neighborhoods or locations where the outdoor displays could go. As a result, the LEDs can be erected anywhere the billboard firms want to place them.
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