“It is the Los Angeles dodge and delay program,” said a frustrated Marilyn Cohon, the Vice President of Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association about City Hall’s long-awaited billboard fee inspection program. “We find it appalling that the city is dragging its feet.”

Even Council Member Ed Reyes, who is notorious for being tight lipped about billboard-related boondoggles, scoffed, “You aren’t moving anywhere…It is frustrating.”

At the last Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) committee meeting in February, building officials said they were working on implementing a billboard fee and inspection program. The problem is they said the very same thing last December. Both times, Department of Building and Safety general manager Andrew Adelman claimed that “due to various litigation actions” the program was at a stand still.

However, the LA Weekly reported in a cover story last month that there was no court order or injunction preventing the city from starting the program approved by City Council members six long years ago.

On May 27, billboard activists and Reyes listened intently as a Department of Building and Safety chief updated the PLUM Committee again.

Predictably, things haven’t changed much. Hector Buitrago, Chief of the Code Enforcement Bureau with the Department of Building and Safety, used the same strategy as General Manager Adelman. Like Adelman, Buitrago blamed the failure to start the inspection program on the “phantom” lawsuits.

But this time Buitrago said the department has finally come up with a fee amount but needs approval by the Chief Legislative Analyst’s Office and City Attorney’s Office to implement it. The secret fee only applies to the smaller billboard companies that did not negotiate a “sweetheart” settlement deal with the city. Once the fee is approved, then City Council members will have to vote on it, and that could take months.

Building officials estimated that there are 10,000 billboards in Los Angeles. Small billboard companies own around 3,300. Outdoor advertisers Vista Media, Regency, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor own the remaining 6,700.

“The billboard industry is raking in money beyond their wildest dreams,” said Cohon.

Back in 2002, Councilman Jack Weiss called for a yearly billboard-inspection fee on billboard owners. At the time, building officials estimated that there were around 4,000 illegal billboards in the city.

Then, Vista Media, Regency, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor won a federal injunction to stop the inspection program, on the grounds that it violated their constitutional rights and that the $314 fee was excessive.

However, the federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the judge in 2003, ruling that the billboard firms failed to show that a “fee” increase would cause them “constitutional harm.” It was the biggest victory against the billboard industry in Los Angeles, opening the way to finally create a list of lawless billboards and shut down the practice.

But it never happened.

Instead of holding the billboard companies’ feet to the fire with an effective fee, inspection plan and crackdown, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo agreed to “settlement” meetings with high-powered billboard-industry attorneys. Those meetings led to mega deals in late 2006 and early 2007 that allowed CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel and Regency Outdoor to digitally modify a whopping 800 plus billboards.

“It was a pretty darned disastrous agreement,” said Barbara Monahan Burke, vice president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council.

In exchange, the billboard giants agreed to pay an annual inspection fee of $187.

But that never happened either. The Department of Building and Safety still has not asked for a penny.

Meanwhile, since the settlement agreement the Department of Building and Safety reported that Clear Channel has digitally upgraded 29 billboards, and has applied for nine more permits. CBS Outdoor has digitally modernized three billboards, with five more in the works.

Atleast somebody is doing their job. Unfortunately, it is at the expense of neighborhoods citywide.

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