CBS and Clear Channel Lose Billboard Secrecy Bid

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied a motion filed by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor on Wednesday that would have prevented the LA Weekly from obtaining a long-awaited list of illegal and legal billboards the city council ordered compiled for the public six years ago. “The city is obliged to give out public information,” said Judge James Chalfant at the April 2 hearing that included lawyers from Clear Channel and CBS, the Los Angeles City Attorney's office and the Weekly. Chalfant told the two advertising giants that, despite their claims that the locations and ownership of billboards in Los Angeles should be kept secret from competitors, “Your competitor has the same right to the list.” Laura Brill, representing the billboard companies, said the two firms weren't concerned about the city releasing a permit detailing the information on a single billboard, but argued that the “the act of compiling it” into a comprehensive list was valuable information the firms didn't want made public. Deputy City Attorney Steve Blau, who opposed the billboard giants' motion along with the Weekly, argued that the list wasn't a trade secret. He noted that Clear Channel's billboard inventory lists -- complete with locations and other information -- have already been published in other U.S. cities. Los Angeles officials have long suspected that 40 percent of the 11,000 billboards in L.A. are illegal. Many activists and city leaders have demanded that a list be made public so that activists and others can fight the visual blight problem. The Superior Court ruling on Wednesday came two weeks after Clear Channel and CBS attorney's informed the city that they intended to seek a preliminary injunction prohibiting city officials from releasing the billboards list to the Weekly. That bid to squelch the list was set off after the Weekly sent a California Public Records request to the city's Department of Building and Safety on March 11 asking for -- among other things -- a list of billboards in Los Angeles owned by Clear Channel and CBS. A 2006 settlement agreement between the city and major billboard companies has allowed the companies to begin to “modernize” some 840 billboards – turning them into ultra-bright LED displays. But in return for that the concession by city leaders, the billboard giants were supposed to hand over a list of their legal and illegal inventory - and pay an inspection fee for each billboard. The billboard companies agreed, but resisted calls to make their billboard lists public. At the time, the City Council argued that the information was not a trade secret, and was subject to the California Public Records Act – in other words, that it was public information. The issue heated up on March 25 when Council Members Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel – aware of the Weekly's public records request to the Department of Building and Safety -- sent a letter to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo asking him to explain why the list of billboards still had not been produced. At that time, the council members conceded that they had just learned that, rather than producing the expected list, the billboard companies had instead provided heaping boxes of documents, plus an unusable electronic file of their billboard inventory. In a written response to Weiss and Greuel, Delgadillo's office tried to place blame on the Department of Building and Safety for not keeping tabs on the status of the long-awaited billboards list. Weiss also demanded to know why Delgadillo notified the billboard companies of the Weekly's public records request, thereby tipping them off. However, the Weekly has since confirmed that Delgadillo did not tip off the billboard companies about the Weekly's seeking of the list – a worker in the Department of Building and Safety admits doing that. The city attorney argued in his letter to Weiss and Greuel that the city could be legally liable if city employees didn’t tell the billboard companies that the Weekly was trying to get the much-sought after billboards list. In 2001, the city ordered the Department of Building and Safety to get a handle on the city's thousands of legal and illegal billboards and their locations. At the time, council members feared that the Building and Safety Department was not enforcing the laws and keeping shoddy records. Weiss argued, during that debate, that billboard companies were abusing the city, saying, “We’ve been outmanned. We’ve been outgunned, and we’ve been outmuscled.” A year later, in 2002, the city council voted to require city inspectors to locate, identify and regulate the billboards – and ban all new billboards. But just one month later, a federal injunction sought by the billboard companies abruptly stopped the effort to inventory the city's billboards. The latest judge to rule in this tangled battle seemed to be taking the city's side. “A trade secret is for [the recipe for] Coca-Cola,” said Chalfant at the April 2 hearing. “I just don't believe it is a trade secret.”

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