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Buh-Bye to LA's 100 LED Billboards? 

Thursday, Nov 8 2012
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If she didn't know better, Barbara Broide of Westwood would be really confused. In 2002, she watched outdoor-advertising companies drag Los Angeles through the courts over a paltry $314 inspection fee meant to cover City Hall's costs to crack down on more than 4,000 illegal and legal billboards.

That $314 fee would have paid 20 inspectors to determine which billboards were legally permitted and safe — and which weren't. It was a pittance, given that big billboard firms can haul in the equivalent of L.A.'s household median income — about $40,000 — per billboard. Per month.

The outdoor advertisers vociferously fought the inspection program and fee. Years later, city workers finally determined that outdoor advertising firms had cluttered L.A. with more than 1,000 illegally erected or illegally enlarged billboards.

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Fast-forward nine years. Today, huge outdoor-advertising companies, after forcing L.A. taxpayers to spend years in court defending the inspection plan and an ensuing settlement agreement, are begging L.A. to accept boatloads of their money.

Advertising giants Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor over the summer offered at least $25 million a year to the city — 25 times more than the city had wanted from its inspection fee.

To Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Blvd. Homeowners Association, something smells funny about the companies' change of heart.

In fact, the big billboard firms were acting in advance of a ruling by California's 2nd District Court of Appeal, which signaled last week that it's ready to slaughter 100 of the two companies' plump cash cows —100 digital billboards erected on L.A. streets, which rake in at least $100 million per year.

Amidst a ban on digital billboards, then–City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who had taken billboard industry money, cut a secret sweetheart deal with the firms. The deal was approved in just minutes by then–City Council President Eric Garcetti and the City Council, and quickly signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — all of whom had taken billboard industry money.

The 2006 deal allowed Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor to "modernize" — in fact, transform to digital, some 840 billboards. No public hearings were allowed. Soon, 100 billboards became ultra-bright signs, each containing 449,280 LED bulbs and consuming enough carbon to power 13 homes.

Their intense LED glow is hated by many communities — it can be seen for miles, and streams through drawn curtains, in what some deride as the "24-hour digital sunrise."

In 2009, Superior Court judge Terry Green called the hasty 2006 deal "poison" and ruled that the City Council had illegally exempted CBS and Clear Channel from the city's ban on digital billboards. Then, days ago, on Oct. 30, as widely expected, the California 2nd District Court of Appeal indicated that it is leaning toward unleashing its guillotine on the 100 digital billboards by ruling them illegal.

Clear Channel and CBS anticipated the final court ruling — expected shortly — and quietly deployed executives and lobbyists to pressure certain City Council members to work out a new law and a new deal to preserve their billboards and get around the expected court ruling against them.

The lobbyists boldly hijacked the City Council, secretly arranging to ghostwrite their own City Council motion to keep the 100 digital billboards in place and the $100 million per year flowing.

City Council members Ed Reyes and Paul Krekorian agreed to carry the billboard industry's water. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Krekorian and Reyes "authored" a motion crafted mostly by the billboard industry to advance its own cause.

Reyes copped to letting former city co–worker-turned–Clear Channel lobbyist Morrie Goldman ghostwrite the motion. L.A. Weekly's own records confirm this.

"They provided verbiage, but they didn't write the whole thing," Reyes argues. "They gave us basic parameters, but we finalized the language. We can think for ourselves. It's not like they were dragging us by the nose." Lobbyists for Clear Channel promised the city $25 million a year, a figure Councilman Mitch Englander later remarked had to be low if it was the first offer.

The Reyes-Krekorian motion turns the city's legal position on its head by warning of "legal and financial risks" if the court affirms the 2006 "poison" settlement. Yet almost nobody expects the 2nd Court of Appeal to do that. The city's position is strong — the billboard firms' position is weak.

Nevertheless, City Council president Herb Wesson diverted the industry-written motion around the usual public hearings, and on Oct. 16 it was approved 11-3 by the City Council. The motion orders city planners and legislative analysts to hurriedly — by Nov. 15 — work out a draft deal for the billboard companies and create a draft law upending L.A.'s ban on digital billboards.

Deputy City Planner Alan Bell says city planners can't possibly undertake the bizarre rush demanded by Krekorian, Reyes and Wesson: "For two years, we have asked for a 'sign unit' of at least three people and consulting money worth about $1 million per year. ... That's never been allotted."

In 2011, Bell urged the City Council to resolve the festering issue of digital and illegal billboards by inviting together "all of the stakeholders — including [anti-]billboard activists,'' Bell says. Instead, anti-clutter proponents across the city — who want the 100 digital billboards removed — were pointedly cut out as Krekorian, Reyes and Wesson gave the billboard firms much of what they demanded.

Bell says, "It really needs to include everybody who has a different perspective on this issue." The spectacle has angered many. But L.A. faces a $216 million deficit — City Hall overspends by about $24,640 per hour. The 11 council members want the billboard industry's $25 million.

Activist Broide calls the deadline "a sham" that leaves no time for people to weigh in. Krekorian did throw the neighborhood councils a bone: They'll be notified after, but not before, the proposed new law and billboard deal are committed to paper.

"That is worse than not giving us a chance to speak, because it pretends to do that," Broide bridles. "It's not only wrong. It's insulting, and it diminishes the credibility of our city government, once again, thanks to the greed and the impatience of and the bullying of the signage industry."

Garcetti backed the 2006 "poison" digital-billboard deal, a move he considers "absolutely" one of his biggest mistakes at City Hall. He found religion after Clear Channel erected one of its glaring digital billboards on Silver Lake Boulevard in 2008 — and his hipster constituency roared with anger. Three weeks ago, Garcetti joined Tom LaBonge and Paul Koretz in voting against this latest twist. Garcetti, who is running for mayor, says the Krekorian-Reyes motion "doesn't smell right.

"I think it's putting the cart before the horse," he says. He wants to review the appeals court's upcoming final ruling.

Phil Recht, an attorney representing Summit Media, which sued when City Hall let its rivals Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor exclusively erect digital billboards, asks: "Why the rush? It's because CBS and Clear Channel are trying to beat the court clock."

Recht says, "You'll ... run roughshod over stakeholder concerns. You'll increase the chances of a whole new litigation cycle."

Krekorian says he's being "mischaracterized." He posted on Facebook a snippy and sanctimonious letter (facebook.com/PaulKrekorian/posts/557264557623978) that argues he's trying to reduce billboards in L.A., get money for the city and head off more lawsuits.

He called past decisions "failures in policymaking and bad deals" and said the ghostwritten motion was merely the start of a discussion. He said he wouldn't "be swayed by the loudest screeching voice."

Dennis Hathaway, a soft-spoken activist and president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, was stunned. He called Krekorian's attack "extremely offensive."

Hathaway says the billboard industry-written motion Krekorian put his name on will, in fact, produce "a draft-binding agreement and a draft ordinance." For Krekorian to call that "the start of a 'discussion' is absurd." Krekorian's slams have "a chilling effect on public input," Hathaway believes.

So what is the rush? Special Assistant City Attorney Jane Usher says, "There is no urgency. The council has been free to write legislation" since 2010, when the city won a key victory against illegal supergraphics from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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