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
A billboard-industry specialist, Fisher was hired three years ago by Rush to figure out how to get the courts to buy the argument that under the First Amendment, World Wide Mediacom's supergraphic locations, although illegal under L.A. codes, must be deemed legal sites.
Fisher helped to refine the technique known as the "billboard ambush," in which firms blindside city governments by embroiling city attorneys, city councils and city-code enforcers in litigation for years while the companies make millions in advertising dollars.
"He was one of the early practitioners," says San Diego lawyer Randall Morrison, who often represents cities in court.
Dennis Hathaway, L.A.'s leading anticlutter activist, breaks news of illegal-billboard antics on his Web site, banbillboardblight.org. Hathaway says leaders of the illegal-sign industry do not care about "the people working in offices whose windows they cover, and who could be at risk in a fire, or the pedestrians and motorists who might be endangered if one of those signs ... fell."
The techniques used by Shafner, Rush, Fisher and the others have worked beautifully in Los Angeles. The people Fisher represents reap easy profits, live well and inundate L.A. neighborhoods with advertising that is widely viewed as blight. "You remember the movie Jurassic Park, and the scientist character who said, 'Life finds a way'?" asks Luke Zamperini, a code-enforcement inspector for the Department of Building and Safety. "In this city, advertising finds a way. It doesn't matter, the laws we have. They find a way to have their ad up there anyway."
Well, maybe not for long. Trutanich is trying to turn the old formula on its head by being the aggressor instead of the defender. L.A.'s nonpermitted outdoor-advertising cabal is feeling the heat. Scoffs Rush, "I am not out there selling drugs and guns. I am engaging in free speech."
Gary Shafner's approach helps to explain why these men have succeeded as long as they have. Shafner is a political insider who threw a 2005 victory party for City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, and then a 2009 "evening with L.A. City Council member Bill Rosendahl" to help Rosendahl raise campaign money.
The bash was thrown in Shafner's unusual Venice manse, an apartment building on Clubhouse Court near Pacific Avenue converted into a fantasy living space decorated with vintage cars and an Airstream trailer atop the roof. Shafner's master bathroom is built into the cab of a truck; his vast closet is a replica of a Barneys.
Shafner knows about generating money, not just campaign cash. He began his career installing rock posters on construction-site fences for Bill Graham in the 1970s, and in the 1980s he formed National Promotions & Advertising with Zackery — and they pasted thousands of posters promoting rock shows and low-budget movies all over L.A.
In 1996, city inspectors confiscated more than 90,000 illegal posters, slapping NPA with a five-figure fine — $194.20 for the first poster and $1.60 for each duplicate. In an interview years ago with Los Angeles magazine, Shafner's partner Zackery, NPA's president, said: "It's not the kind of thing where I want to go out and advertise who I am."
Now, Trutanich's team is trying to undo the damage to the city created by a baffling tangle of compromises and exceptions granted to such advertisers by current and previous Los Angeles City Council members and mayors. The pattern has been that city politicians, such as Rosendahl, Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, publicly denounce illegal signs and billboards — but cut exceptions to let a handful of companies thrive.
A few years ago, Shafner and Zackery struck up a deal with the City Council to stick their profit-generating posters — advertising rock shows and movies — on construction-site walls. In exchange, the pair agreed to remove graffiti within 500 feet of the sites. Yet nobody now at City Hall appears to be able to explain those old negotiations to L.A. Weekly.
In San Francisco, a similar advertising-in-exchange-for-graffiti-removal deal with Shafner was recently ended. San Francisco Beautiful had fought hard for a billboard ban and strongly opposed the graffiti deal. When the city let NPA cover the sides of stores there with outdoor ads, that was "like trying to fight blight with blight," recalls the group's president, Milo Hanke. "What was appalling is the city went along with this less than three years after the vote [to ban billboards]. We were very proud of the victory we had up here."
Shafner's ads today can be seen citywide, on the walls of Los Angeles liquor stores, donut shops, coin laundries, bakeries, Korean barbecues and beauty-supply stores. He claims his firm, Contest Promotions, applies for — and is awarded, by Building and Safety — legal permits. But according to code inspectors, Shafner uses a clever ruse: His company tells the city that it needs routine permits for "on-site" signs — legal signs that businesses like 7-Eleven or McDonald's put up solely to identify their respective locations.
Once Shafner has such a permit in hand, says Zamperini, instead of putting up a store sign, he puts up what city officials say is an illegal outdoor ad. Of 125 Contest Promotions locations recently inspected by the city, L.A. officials found that 98 had acquired ill-gotten "on-site" permits from the unsuspecting Department of Building and Safety.
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