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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.
"There is no massive conspiracy of billboard companies owning Council members," Garcetti insists. He says City Attorney Delgadillo's staff barely explained the details to the Council, and dramatically de-emphasized the digital makeover to come. Garcetti concedes, "I don't want to make too many excuses," but adds "you have to rely on your lawyers."
The loose terms negotiated by Delgadillo placed the outdoor advertising companies firmly in charge of L.A.’s street-scape. Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight (www.banbillboardblight.org), recalls how: “The agenda item referred only to ‘conferring with legal counsel,’ and no member of the public would have known that a public discussion would be held, or what the subject of that discussion might be.”
The Council and Villaraigosa had plenty of chances to understand what they were doing. Two months later, in November 2006, following furious complaints from anti-clutter activists over the deal, Delgadillo returned to the Council, asking it to approve a nearly identical deal allowing a smaller firm, Regency Outdoor, to also spread LED billboards around the city. Again, it could “modernize” 38 billboards if it removed just five illegal ones for which the firm had never been fined.
On November 28, very little debate took place at the brief meeting in the marbled City Council chambers. Garcetti actually declared that it was “refreshing” to have had a discussion of the billboard settlement in public. Reminded of that short Garcetti speech, Hathaway says, “He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that no members of the public were able to add their voices to a debate on a matter of intense interest in many of the city’s neighborhoods.”
As feared by critics, the deal helped only the billboard giants. The city’s Department of Building and Safety never launched the program to charge billboard fees and remove illegal ones. But the companies were prompt about enriching themselves. This year, digital signage began popping up all over L.A.— about 100 permits have been issued by City Hall.
The key players, Villaraigosa, Garcetti and Delgadillo, watched it unfold without complaint.
Eighteen months ago, a quiet ambush of sorts unfolded on L.A. streets. Crews showed up in several neighborhoods and, without public notice or debate, began dismantling the front and back of longtime billboards, replacing them with huge, black faces. The darkened faces, containing 449,280 LED bulbs, represented an advertising revolution sweeping through some American cities where mayors and city councils said “yes.”
Firms like Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor have spent billions of dollars on loads of LED bulbs from Daktronics of North Dakota, and on lobbying city councils nationwide to, in essence, flip the switch to digital.
But residents of Los Angeles were not invited to the debate. In more than 50 L.A. locations, LED bulbs were soon glowing, pitching everything from Fords to banking. Nobody knows whom to blame, and angry calls and letters to the City Council members “just got ignored,” says Hathaway.
Activists have discovered that in Los Angeles, the brilliant new signs are overseen by a creaky, 30-year-old California Environmental Quality Act Law (CEQA) law written to exempt the city’s traditional billboards from environmental review.
Incredibly to legal experts, the City Council’s deal did not plug up this exemption — a mistake critics say might be expected from a college law school student but not from seasoned lawyers and political strategists at City Hall. Says Assistant City Planner Michael O’Brien,“It is one of the city exemptions the Council adopted, but they adopted it years before billboard companies began plastering the city with supergraphics and digital billboards.”
Because all 17 elected officials involved — the Council members, mayor and city attorney — failed to address that loophole, a billboard company in L.A. can file a CEQA exemption claiming a mere “modernization” is under way, then erect a digital billboard.
As a result, the city is rewarding years of bad behavior by Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor and Regency Outdoor, allowing them to go digital even if the old billboards they choose for “modernization” are in a no-billboards zone, community design overlay protection area, or pedestrian-oriented district that bans billboards.