Taking aim at digital billboards in the wake of intense opposition from community groups in Hollywood, Venice, Encino, Silver Lake and other areas, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission adopted a preliminary motion to ban all new electronic billboards for a year.
The Interim Control Ordinance would stop, for at least one year, the proliferation of ultra-bright, electronic billboards while city officials study complaints pouring into City Hall and consider a possible rewrite of loose regulations that have allowed Los Angeles to become the center of the illegal billboard industry.
Planning Commissioner Michael Woo, who introduced the moratorium, also called for a tax or a fee on billboards to go into a citywide fund to combat blight.
Woo criticized as “ridiculously low” the nominal $100 fee that billboard companies pay City Hall to install a single, highly lucrative electronic billboard. A spot on a network of ten digital billboards owned by Clear Channel Outdoor or CBS Outdoor can cost $97,500 a month.
Planning Commissioner Mike Woo called for the billboard moratorium
In addition, Woo, who lives in Silver Lake, said the city needs to review the public safety issues surrounding electronic billboards that flash all night. Woo said an obnoxious, piercingly bright electronic billboard that suddenly appeared along a pretty stretch of Silver Lake Boulevard in September shouldn’t be called one billboard but “six billboards on one pole.”
“It illustrates the dilemma in terms of hazards to public health and the safety of drivers and pedestrians,” he said.
The early morning meeting was packed with anti-billboard activists, Department of Building & Safety officials, attorneys for Delgadillo’s office, and more than a dozen USC students taking a class from Woo.
Commission President Jane Ellison Usher has been a vocal critic of billboard blight in Los Angeles
Sitting quietly in the back of the room was billboard lobbyist Ken Spiker Jr., who hosted a elegant soiree last year at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who wrote the controversial, 2006 legal agreement that is now allowing digital billboard proliferation. Spiker claimed to the Los Angeles Times that he no longer was a lobbyist for Clear Channel Outdoor. Spiker didn’t comment during the public comment section and left before the meeting ended.
Commission President Jane Ellison Usher, who has been critical of city council’s billboard actions, said the Planning Commission received a “huge volume of email on this item.” She said the city faces many tough legal questions, including what benefits the Los Angeles public received from Delgadillo's controversial settlement, approved by the Los Angeles City Council, which granted the for-profit billboard industry more than 800 digital billboards citywide.
“This question alludes many of us,” said Usher to laughs from the crowd.
“Our department has been left out of this [debate] for far too long,” said Usher. She lectured other city officials who have ducked the controversy, saying, “I am tired of the city of Los Angeles being the doormat of the billboard industry…This is a call for action. It is a window of opportunity. It is a tall order, but it is one you are obliged to meet.”
In a surprising twist, Delgadillo’s office recommended a similar billboard moratorium — but his would have lasted for six months and would encompass all types of outdoor advertising, including supergraphics.
Delgadillo plans to introduce his competing motion to Los Angeles City Council members next week, but may face a dubious council, given his missteps in advising them to sign the widely-ridiculed 2006 settlement that allows digital proliferation.
Delgadillo’s Chief Assistant City Attorney David Michaelson told the commission that the city is currently fighting 20 billboard-related lawsuits filed by outdoor advertisers against City Hall.
Commission President Jane Ellison Usher thanked Michaelson for the city attorney's proposed ban, and said “David you take my breath away. This news is welcome…We will be delighted to work with you on a common goal.”
However, Delgadillo’s motion brought grumbles from the crowd of activists who blame Delgadillo for sitting down in “settlement” meetings with high-powered billboard-industry attorneys even though the courts had already sided with the city of Los Angeles and no “settlement” was required.
Those unusual “settlement” meetings led to widely criticized mega deals in late 2006 and early 2007 in which Delgadillo, the city council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa all agreed to let CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel and Regency Outdoor to digitally modify a whopping 800 plus billboards.
Anti-billboard activists Barbara Broide and Dennis Hathaway
Critics point to the fact that Delgadillo accepted $400,000 in free billboard space from huge billboard companies, who touted him during his run for City Attorney in 2001.
Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight President Dennis Hathaway said he doesn't trust the city attorney to push for a true billboard moratorium. “It is like asking a fox to design a protection system for a henhouse.”
“This is a political problem,” echoed activist David Ewing. “It is a failure of will. The elephant in the room is the city attorney.”
Former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye, who now runs a blog called RonKayeLA and is the founder of Saving LA Project was on hand to tape the proceedings, and criticized the city attorney’s office for “rolling over” to the billboard companies.
Before the Planning Commission voted, Usher told the crowd of activists that the moratorium won’t happen “unless you keep [the politicians] feet to the fire.”
Woo’s successful motion now goes to the full city council, which is under fire for allowing billboard blight and clutter to reel out of control. “Some council members will say only rich people care about billboards,” he said after the meeting. “There will be a tendency to dismiss this…The council could have issued an Interim Control Ordinance.”
He called Delgadillo’s action — to call for a ban after writing the very deal that allowed such billboards to spread — an “extremely unusual occurrence.”