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USC Grad Student Sues Over a Deep L.A. Secret: Who Got Rich Off Illegal Billboards? 

Thursday, Aug 2 2012
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Lisa Sedano: "None of the  elected people, including Carmen Trutanich, seem to  want to cross the big billboard companies."

PHOTO BY DREW BARILLAS

Lisa Sedano: "None of the elected people, including Carmen Trutanich, seem to want to cross the big billboard companies."

Correction
Our Aug. 3 news story incorrectly described the city attorney's position as to the city's billboard database ("Scholar Sues Over an Old L.A. Secret"). The city contends that it has repeatedly offered Lisa Sedano the complete database, as it exists in its current, draft form, with no caveats — provided she pay $591.44 to cover the costs of producing the records. They have also offered to provide owner identities and permit numbers in every case where such information exists. The L.A. Weekly regrets the error.

All USC grad student Lisa Sedano wanted was to finish her geography dissertation. She was probing to the bottom of L.A. government's most Byzantine mapping mysteries, whose secrets have been piling up for nearly 100 years. She could not take no for an answer when City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's office threw up a final roadblock.

The city refused to let Sedano see a public database, long awaited by city leaders, community groups and others, which is expected to reveal the addresses, ID locators and permits for 6,000 to 7,000 legal and illegal billboards, which create a forest of outdoor advertising on L.A. streets.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DREW BARILLAS - Lisa Sedano: "None of the elected people, including Carmen Trutanich, seem to want to cross the big billboard companies."
  • PHOTO BY DREW BARILLAS
  • Lisa Sedano: "None of the elected people, including Carmen Trutanich, seem to want to cross the big billboard companies."

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It's public information. But those who hate L.A.'s outdoor advertising "clutter," and those who love its outdoor advertising "charms," have for years bitterly warred over and sued over the long-repressed contents of the billboard inventory.

The 2002 City Council banned new billboards, ordered the creation of the database — and ordered that it be made public. Trutanich is withholding key pieces of information, claiming the data aren't ready.

In 2007, L.A. Weekly used the California Public Records Act to request the data, long dubbed "The List," from the Department of Building and Safety, but department employees, acting on behalf of the big billboard firms, improperly alerted Clear Channel Outdoors and CBS Outdoors — who sued the city to prevent The List's release. The Weekly, joined by City Attorney Steve Blau, challenged the billboard firms and convinced a judge that the data was public.

With its victory in hand, the Weekly discovered that The List was a fantasy. Old permits were heaped in boxes. Vague billboard addresses were unsearchable and often not matched to owners. Building and Safety officials admitted it took a professional two hours to trace a single billboard permit — the same time as in 2002, when the angry City Council ordered the creation of a searchable database so the city could eradicate illegal billboards.

The new data are expected to be embarrassing to city officials and some of their donors in the United States' $6.5 billion outdoor advertising industry.

"They're hanging onto information that reveals just how in bed with the city government the billboards are," says Sedano, a Berkeley Law grad who isn't nervous about staring down Trutanich.

Sedano is suing the city and Building and Safety. The inventory could reveal which corporations and wealthy individuals created in Los Angeles what critics call the capital of the illegal billboard industry.

In a City Hall where all but one or two politicians take money from the billboard firms, there's more than just the potential for embarrassment if Sedano gets her way.

As a geographer, Sedano says, "Maybe if people [in L.A.] did talk about it, they could say, well, what is the city landscape worth? What is the price tag for our skyline?"

City officials had estimated 4,000 illegal billboards in L.A. — some furtively erected atop buildings, lacking earthquake approvals or other permits, others illegally doubled or tripled from their original size. But a few months ago, Building and Safety principal inspector Luke Zamperini told Sedano about 1,000 billboards may be illegal. Inspectors spent three years comparing old permits to the size of actual billboards and driving city streets spotting ghost billboards whose owners have defied the law.

Of multi-ton billboards erected in the dead of night, anti-billboard activist Dennis Hathaway says, "There's no way of knowing if those things are safe."

Sedano also believes outdoor advertising clutter constitutes a private use of a public resource: the skyline.

"They are the one commercial message that you cannot turn off," she says. "You can decide to get off Facebook, or not to buy a magazine. You can't not go out in your neighborhood, you can't not drive to work because you don't want to have messages bombarding you."

Sedano grew up in Manhattan Beach, attended Harvard, wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, tried corporate law and worked at Nolo Press, which publishes self-help law books. She's perfect for taking on City Hall.

She got into billboards after reading an L.A. Weekly cover story by Christine Pelisek, "Billboards Gone Wild." Sedano found it bizarre that after the City Council banned billboards in 2002, the outdoor advertising industry just built more anyway.

Sedano made her dissertation a political excavation into the attempt to locate and control thousands of billboards across 468 square miles of terrain.

In 2002, the 15 council members created the ridiculously named OSSPIP — the "off-site sign periodic inspection program" — and promised that inspectors would review all billboards every three years, making sure they were legal and safe.

But CBS and Clear Channel sued. They claimed that a $368-per-billboard fee — charged every three years for inspections — was too steep. Yet a single, two-sided, 48-foot-long billboard typically earns $504,000 over three years.

Another suit targeted the city ban. In 2002, a judge issued a temporary injunction against the ban, but in 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted that injunction, handing then–City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo a huge victory.

But Delgadillo — who, like the City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had taken campaign funds from billboard firms — bizarrely persuaded the council and mayor to "settle" with CBS and Clear Channel.

In what is widely seen as an unholy deal, the city agreed to a $186 inspection fee; gave CBS and Clear Channel permission to erect more than 800 piercingly bright digital billboards without any public hearings; and agreed to declare CBS's and Clear Channel's illegal old billboards to be legal.

What did Los Angeles get in exchange?

CBS and Clear Channel agreed to dismantle just 49 of their 3,285 billboards.

Outraged by this, a competitor, Summit Media, sued. The widely vilified settlement was nullified. (Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor have appealed.)

At first, Zamperini and his boss at Building and Safety, Frank Bush, welcomed the grad student with her intense interest in their work and this convoluted history.

"They made it clear to me that the [billboard] inventory was done, that they had completed their fieldwork," Sedano says.

Anti-clutter activist Hathaway also was told by a key inspector that the inventory "was done" last year.

But in June 2011, as Sedano contacted higher-up officials for her dissertation, Zamperini refused to show Sedano the billboard database.

Zamperini cited Summit Media's lawsuit over the city's weird settlement with Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor. His reaction was odd. A government official cannot withhold public data just because somebody is suing.

Last August, Sedano asked Trutanich special assistant Jane Usher what was going on. Sedano tells the Weekly that Usher said: "I don't think that people in the city want to inflame the litigants [CBS and Clear Channel] in that case. There's a sticky wicket."

Usher denies she said that.

So Sedano demanded the database via the California Public Records Act. This time, Building and Safety told her it would cost $591.44, and Deputy City Attorney Kim Westhoff wrote her to say that the data are "not in its final form and remains unverified," so not all of it would be revealed.

Trutanich spokesman Frank Mateljan emailed the Weekly to say Sedano could see most of the data, but with startling caveats: She can see "the identity of owner (where available) and permit number (where available)."

But she'll be back at square one if she doesn't know the owner ID and permit numbers.

And there's the sticky wicket: To know who owns the illegal billboards is to know what City Hall gave away and to whom.

Correction
Our Aug. 3 news story incorrectly described the city attorney's position as to the city's billboard database ("Scholar Sues Over an Old L.A. Secret"). The city contends that it has repeatedly offered Lisa Sedano the complete database, as it exists in its current, draft form, with no caveats — provided she pay $591.44 to cover the costs of producing the records. They have also offered to provide owner identities and permit numbers in every case where such information exists. The L.A. Weekly regrets the error.

Reach the writer at haron@laweekly.com

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