City Council Votes for Permanent Ban on Digital Billboards

The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously today to ban all digital billboards in the city, an action brought before them by City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who feared that an existing "Interim Control Ordinance" that temporarily bans digital billboards and super-graphics may soon be found invalid by a judge.

"I think it is a positive move they took this step, but in a way they had their backs against the wall because if the [interim] moratorium was thrown out of court and digital billboards started showing up right and left there would be this huge unrest in the community," says Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

"I am kind of assuming that even if [former City Attorney Rocky] Delgadillo was in there the city attorney's office would have done something like this. Trutanich "did the right thing and warned the city council."

The new ban prevents outdoor advertising companies from erecting digital displays. It also prohibits, at least temporarily, special exceptions granted by the city that, in the past, allowed companies to erect ultra-bright digital billboards and controversial supergraphics in so-called "sign districts."

These special exceptions, only granted to some billboard companies and not to others, have given irate outdoor advertising companies the legal ammunition to challenge the city's loophole-riddled laws in court. One lawsuit by World Wide Rush accused city leaders of playing favorites.

Last August, federal district judge Audrey Collins ruled that the city's 2002 ban on billboards, which allowed special sign districts, was unconstitutional. The city appealed the case and it now rests in the hands of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the city council meeting in Van Nuys today, Deputy City Attorney David Michaelson said the city would "reinstate the exceptions if they are deemed constitutional" by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of World Wide Rush vs. Los Angeles.

Strangely, Councilman Richard Alarcon told the crowded meeting room that he was for the ban. "We have plenty of signs out there," said Councilman Richard Alarcon. "We don't need more." It was an about-face for Alarcon, who tried to convince the council last month to allow a law that would allow each member to orchestrate a sign swap, which would allows some digital billboards in exchange for the removal of old signs.

The meeting offered the usual drama seen in L.A. public meetings whenever billboard proliferation is the topic. One speaker argued that the council's sudden rush to pass the emergency ban could be a violation of the state Brown Act, which requires that the public be given 72-hours notice of meetings like the one today.

City leaders argued that they acted on an emergency basis, allowing them to circumvent the Brown Act. But the question remained whether the issue at hand constituted a legitimate emergency.

The rush was caused in part by the fact that the 15 Los Angeles City Council members, the nation's highest paid city council at nearly $180,000 a year, are leaving next week for their summer hiatus. During that break, the city attorney's office is scheduled to appear in court -- on August 23 -- to argue the legal validity of the city council's pre-existing interim ban on billboards.

If a judge rules that previous ban to be invalid it could potentially open up the floodgates to hundreds of controversial, widely opposed, digital billboards in Los Angeles neighborhoods.

The City Council needed 12 votes today for the emergency ban to go into effect immediately instead of in 30 days. But Councilman Bill Rosendahl was on sick leave recovering from a hernia operation several days ago. Rosendahl pulled himself out of bed to attend the meeting and vote for the ban -- a move that caused anti-billboard activists to cheer.

"It would have been more dramatic if they wheeled him in on a gurney," joked Hathaway.

"The room is packed with lobbyists," said Rosendahl who was roundly cheered by the crowd. "I came for us because it is time for us to say enough is enough is enough."

However, the decision was touch and go at times. City Councilman Jan Perry was not in favor of the emergency amendment to the existing ordinance. Perry, a long-time billboard proponent who was instrumental in allowing four gargantuan sized digital billboards along the 10 Freeway, argued that the city council should not circumvent the normal public and city process of vetting a plan.

"My concern is does a vote today in the affirmative take away tools?," asked Perry. "In some ways we are avoiding our own city process...I am between a rock and a hard place."

"The city attorney does not think we are avoiding the city process," argued Michaelson who postponed a family trip in order to attend the hearing.

Others just scratched their heads. "It is ironic that the city is exactly back to where it started after months of wrangling over drastic changes that could effect businesses in the city," said William Delvac, a land use attorney.

Not every city agency was happy with the plan. In a report to the City Council on August 5, Gail Goldberg, director of planning, disapproved of the proposed ordinance on behalf of the Planning Commission and urged the council members not to adopt it because it only addressed one aspect of the sign revisions that were approved by the City Planning Commission.

In March, the commission recommended a different ordinance to the City Council, which called for banning digital billboards and supergraphics except in 21 areas with designated ``sign districts,'' including Hollywood, Encino, Universal City, Boyle Heights and Westchester. It also imposed restrictions on most other signs in the city, including

"on-site" signs on storefront windows, which raised the ire of the business community and developers.

The rushed Council vote came after Liberty Media, who owns several supergraphics around the city, filed an amendment to its lawsuit claiming that the Interim Control Ordinance violated several California codes. In its lawsuit, it argued that the city stopped them from getting permits to put up supergrahics but issued permits to a developer in Hollywood and CIM Group.

In 2006, the city settled a lawsuit with CBS Outdoor, Regency, and Clear Channel Outdoor allowing the billboard giants to put up over 800 digital displays. Because of the proliferation of digital billboards scattered in areas including Silver Lake and the major upheavel that ensued, the city temporarily banned digital billboards and supergraphics last December until the planning department could fix the glaring errors in the current ordinance.

"That lawsuit settlement is the rotting corpse in the middle of the room," says Hathaway. "The stench of that thing overpowers everything else."

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