In April of this year, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued a permit for temporary construction fence signs at the site of a church on Lincoln Blvd. In Venice. Those signs have since advertised movies, TV shows, and Airbnb to an audience of motorists on one of the most gridlocked thoroughfares on the west side of the city.
Getting it Wrong: An Open Letter to L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander (and his PLUM committee colleagues)
Dear Councilman Englander:
At the August 23 meeting of the City Council’s PLUM committee, you publicly accused me of putting out false information in the articles I write about billboard and signage issues. Specifically, in asking a city official for clarification of a point under discussion, you said, “Because I want to make sure that when Mr. Hathaway writes about this, since he gets it wrong most of the time, that he hears it clearly.”
I consider this an attack on my personal integrity, because I always strive to be factually accurate and avoid taking things out of context or otherwise trafficking in misinformation. For example, before writing about PLUM committee meetings I almost always listen to the meeting audio, to make sure that I heard things correctly and that I accurately quote committee members and other speakers. I have a definite point of view about the signage issues the PLUM committee deals with, but that doesn’t mean I believe in using less than ethical and honest means to promote that view.
But your accusation was more than just an attack on me, it was an attack on the very idea that L.A. residents are entitled to be fully informed on the issues that affect them, in this case issues of billboard and signage regulation. That’s because the large majority of those residents can’t come to PLUM committee meetings to hear the discussion firsthand. Unlike lobbyists, billboard company representatives, and others who are paid to attend these meetings, most community people can’t take time off work, arrange child care, and make the necessary adjustments needed to attend a weekday meeting at City Hall. So, without someone reporting on the details of those meetings, they are denied the knowledge they need and deserve to form opinions and make decisions about the issues at hand.
I’m not paid, either, but I’m fortunate enough to be at a stage of my life that I can devote a significant amount of time to a cause I consider very important to the mental and physical health of communities throughout L.A. And an important part of that effort is to inform those citizens who want to know what their elected representatives are doing about billboards and signage but don’t have time to attend the many meetings held on the topic or read the many lengthy reports issued at various points in the deliberative process.
Unfortunately, your public statement at the Aug. 24 PLUM committee meeting tells those citizens, in essence, that the information they read online at the BanBillboardBlight website or in CityWatch or hear in public service programs on local radio stations is “wrong most of the time.” Doubly unfortunate is the fact that you didn’t specify a single instance of what you considered wrong, so it’s just an accusation put out there, deliberately or otherwise, to create doubt in some people’s minds that what they’re reading and hearing is factually accurate.
I have been writing articles about PLUM committee actions and deliberations, as well as those of the City Planning Commission and other government agencies, for almost nine years. In that time, not a single billboard company lobbyist or billboard company executive or employee has approached me and said that something I wrote was false. Not a single member of the PLUM committee, present or past, has contacted me to make that complaint. Not a single City Councilmember, not a single city planner or member of the city attorney’s staff or any other city official involved with billboard and signage issues has told me that something I wrote was inaccurate.
You surely understand that people come to meetings and otherwise involve themselves in community affairs, not because they are paid to, but because they believe in a vision of a better community and a better city. Those people deserve the respect and even the encouragement of their elected representatives, regardless of where they happen to stand on a particular project or issue. Those people deserve access to as much information as possible, so that they can make the kind of informed decisions that are in important part of the bedrock of a democratic system.
I hope you will take that into consideration before making unsupported accusations against someone who has volunteered his time and energy to disseminate that information as widely as possible and help make the system work the way it was intended.
New digital billboards are going to start popping up along L.A.’s streets and freeways, probably sooner than later. The only questions are exactly where these brightly-lighted signs with rapidly-changing ads will appear, and how many will ultimately brighten the landscape with their shiny sales pitches to motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians on those congested thoroughfares.
Earlier this summer, the bus shelter pictured above displayed an ad for the movie, “Central Intelligence,” which depicted two men brandishing and blasting away with guns. But after complaints were raised about the bus shelter’s proximity to nearby schools, the ad was changed to a public service message featuring Smokey the Bear. (more…)
In 2006, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a large-scale study of the effects of alcohol advertising on youth drinking. The conclusion: Exposure to alcohol advertising on TV, radio, and billboards contributes to increased drinking by underage youth, which in turn contributes to such problems as poor grades in school, risky sex, alcohol addiction, and car crashes.
The political debate over allowing new digital billboards in L.A. has little to do with issues like traffic safety, light pollution and energy use. In fact, it’s not even a debate in the classic sense but can be characterized as an interplay of two powerful desires. Clear Channel and other big billboard companies badly want to put up the electronic signs on city streets and freeways and the City Council desperately wants to find new sources of revenue.
On Wednesday morning, people traveling busy Lincoln Blvd. in Venice could have seen the bus shelter ad pictured at left above while listening on their car radios to news of a UCLA professor being shot to death in his office. Whether or not that grim news would have triggered any reflection upon the propriety of using the city’s public sidewalks for a display of men blasting away with guns is impossible to know.
Billboard companies spent $507,000 lobbying Los Angeles city officials in the first quarter of 2016, according to City Ethics Commission records. Those companies and their executives also donated a total of $9,100 to six city councilmembers running for re-election in 2017.
Despite the unanimous opposition of the City Planning Commission, an L.A. City Council committee is pushing ahead with a plan that could ultimately result in new digital billboards going up in a wide area of the city.
Last fall, the planning commission approved a new citywide sign ordinance that restricts the brightly-lighted signs with rapidly changing ads to special sign districts in a limited number of high-intensity commercial areas. At a meeting this week, the council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee turned a cold shoulder to that idea, and directed three city departments to jointly develop detailed proposals for allowing the currently prohibited signs outside those restricted areas, either on city-owned property or on both public and private property.
Committee chairman Jose Huizar said these proposals need to include revenue sharing to the city, funding for sign law enforcement, and the removal of billboards blighting various neighborhoods. This is an about-face from 2015, when Huizar was running for re-election and his answer to a candidates’s questionnaire seemed to support restricting digital billboards to sign districts.
Committee members Felipe Fuentes and Marqueece Harris-Dawson both complained that the City Planning Commission’s restriction of new digital billboards to sign districts wouldn’t result in the removal of billboard blight from their districts, in the east San Fernando Valley and South L.A., respectively.
The ordinance approved by the planning commission requires that new digital billboards in sign districts be offset by the takedown of existing billboards in surrounding communities at a square footage ratio of ten to one. In that ordinance, sign districts are only allowed in 22 areas of the city zoned regional center or regional commercial, such as downtown, Universal City, Warner Center, LAX, Century City, and the Coliseum/USC area, among others.
There are no sign district-eligible areas in Fuentes’s district, but there are two in an adjacent district, in Van Nuys and Panorama City. The ordinance approved by the planning commission doesn’t limit the required billboard takedown to a specific distance from a sign district, and commissioners discussed expanding the takedown area to the entire city, although that provision wasn’t included in the final version of the ordinance.
At the committee meeting, Harris-Dawson called many of the existing billboards in his district “a big, giant sore thumb.” That district includes a sizeable sign district-eligible area in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza commercial area, and under the planning commission’s ordinance a new full-size digital billboard could be put up there only if 10 full-size billboards or a larger number of smaller billboards were first removed in the surrounding community.
Neither Fuentes or Harris-Dawson mentioned the fact that a city survey has shown that more than a hundred billboards in those councilmembers’ districts have either been erected or altered without required permits. In a letter to the PLUM committee last year, City Attorney Mike Feuer said his office was ready to help take enforcement action against many billboards across the city that fall into that category, but to date the committee members haven’t responded to that offer.
There was little discussion by committee members about the city’s prospect of getting revenue from new digital billboards, although that’s been a central point of a vigorous lobbying campaign by a coalition of billboard companies that want to put up an untold number of new digital billboards along freeways and city streets. That coalition includes the three largest billboard operators in the city—Clear Channel, Outfront Media, and Lamar Advertising.
Councilmember Paul Krekorian has put forth a proposal to allow new digital billboards on city-owned property in exchange for a share of revenue and the takedown a certain number of existing billboards, but the councilmember’s proposal leaves details such as the exact number of new billboards and their locations to be worked out.
Councilman Gil Cedillo, a PLUM committee member, floated a proposal two years ago to allow new digital billboards in any commercial area through a conditional use permit process. And Clear Channel, which owns 84 digital billboards that have been shut off by court order since 2013, has pushed for city permission to relocate some of those billboards, ostensibly to locations where they aren’t as likely to generate complaints from nearby residential neighborhoods.
All those proposals got a firm thumbs down from the planning commission, whose members agreed that any digital signs should be restricted to sign districts where their size, brightness, and hours of operation could be strictly regulated to minimize potential traffic hazards, light pollution, and adverse affects on surrounding residential neighborhoods..
The major billboard companies have long opposed these restrictions, and while none have publicly commented on Krekorian’s proposal, it’s unlikely that they are happy with the prospect of being allowed new digital billboards only on a limited number of properties owned by the city.
In fact, Lamar Advertising sued the city in 2013 for the right to put up 45 new digital billboards in specific locations in a wide area of the city. The Louisiana-based company won a favorable ruling from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, but the California Appeals Court overturned that ruling earlier this year, upholding the city’s right to ban those signs.
Another 2014 proposal, by committee member Mitchell Englander, called for granting “amnesty” to all unpermitted and out-of-compliance billboards in the city, but there was no mention of it at this week’s meeting. The planning commission emphatically rejected the idea, calling instead for the city to begin enforcing the law against all illegal billboards.
Neither Englander nor Cedillo commented on the planning commission’s action during this week’s PLUM committee meeting. Both councilmembers, as well as Huizar, have received significant financial support from billboard companies in their past election campaigns. And Englander has gotten a number of campaign contributions from billboard companies and their lobbyists in his current bid for election in November to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
The Los Angeles City Council’s PLUM committee is scheduled to take up the new citywide sign ordinance next Tuesday, April 19. This is a very significant meeting, because the committee will be discussing the ordinance for the first time since the City Planning Commission rejected several bad proposals previously made by the committee, as well as added some significant protections for communities fighting the blight of billboards.
Please send an e-mail to committee members urging passage of the ordinance as approved by the City Planning Commission, and if possible, plan to attend the PLUM committee meeting. This may be the last opportunity to make our voices heard in a public hearing before the ordinance goes to the full city council. And there will be heavy pressure to weaken the ordinance from industry lobbyists and others with a vested in interest in more outdoor advertising on our city streets. Click here for further details, contact information, and a sample letter.