Billboards and Corruption in LA

(Cash found at José Huizar’s home by FBI agents)
The recent FBI indictments of LA city officials show some surprising links between billboards and municipal corruption in Los Angeles. Here is some new information gleaned from the indictments, followed by an action alert. Improving scenic beauty sometimes also entails denouncing bribery.

1. The two principal corruption suspects were also reliable allies of billboard firms in matters before the PLUM Committee. Former Council Member Mitchell Englander, who resigned before admitting guilt last week in connection with a bribery scheme, was also the most consistent advocate of an amnesty for all of the 960 billboards in LA that lack the proper permits. He also favored extending digital billboards to on-site signs. He said at one meeting that businesses such as car dealerships and cinemas have been “good corporate citizens” so they should deserve to get that sort of intrusive, ugly, and dangerous signage.

2. Englander’s successor on the PLUM Committee, 12th District Council Member John Lee, accompanied Englander on at least one of the lobbyist-paid 2017 junkets to Las Vegas where Englander collected free drinks, escort services, and envelopes of cash. The LA Times has alleged that Lee is named as “Staffer B” in Englander’s indictment, but Lee has suspiciously refused to say whether that’s true or not. Lee is also a friend of billboards; he has taken campaign contributions from the billboard lobby. He narrowly won re-election in his district in June, before this news came out. If we had known then what we know now, that election may have brought a billboard opponent into that seat instead.

3. Two PLUM Committee actions involving billboards are directly implicated in the scandals surrounding former committee chair José Huizar, whose indictment document is far longer than Englander’s and who was the best friend of billboards on the committee. The Luxe Hotel renovation project, on Figueroa St. across from LA Live, will have digital billboards along its lower facade (see above picture). Developers who include billboards in their schemes generally allege that the income from those signs helps to fund the project and make it more readily realizable. In that case it also enabled bribery. The developer of that project (called Project D in the indictment) admitted to giving Huizar a free trip to China, free VIP tickets to a Katy Perry concert, paying one of Huizar’s relatives $10,000 per month for “real estate advice,” and giving $100,000 to Huizar’s wife’s campaign to succeed him on the council when he termed out. In exchange for these favors, Huizar introduced and promoted a successful council motion favoring the project in late 2016, according to the indictment.

3a. When the huge digital billboards atop the downtown building known as The Reef lit up a few months ago, their sheer size and proximity to the 10 freeway drew wide notice (see above picture). Well guess what: The developer of that project in late 2017 also paid $25,000 into Huizar’s succession scheme, this time in exchange for a resolution favoring the creation of the required sign district. We know this from a text message exchange between Huizar and his aide George Esparza that’s quoted on page 99 of the indictment: Huizar: “sign district is in committee today.” Esparza: “being handled,” which meant that Esparza, who pled guilty to this, shook down the developer for the contribution.

Send this message to your council members. Use the subject line: FBI Corruption Indictments
Dear Council Member
The recent FBI indictments of former council members José Huizar and Mitchell Englander shock all Los Angeles voters. But two specific City Council actions on projects that include billboards are so tainted with corruption that they need to be repealed and reconsidered in light of the apparent criminal behavior that helped make them possible. According to the indictment of Huizar, the approvals of the sign district for The Reef (Council File 16-1058-S2) and of the redevelopment of the billboard-fronted Luxe Hotel (Council File 17-1009-S2) were greased by illegal developer-funded kickbacks to Huizar as chair of the PLUM Committee. The bribery took the form of free trips, concert tickets, nepotism, and behested campaign contributions. This amounts to intolerable corruption. Current council members did the right thing in suspending Huizar from the council; now they need to clean up some of the mess that he created by repealing at least these two actions.

Patrick Frank, President

Friend of LA Billboards May Go to Prison

Mitchell Englander, who resigned from his Los Angeles City Council seat last year, reached an agreement on March 27 to plead guilty to an obstruction of justice charge in connection with an FBI corruption probe. He was one of the billboard industry’s staunchest allies on the Council. Here is a cogent comment on Englander’s career:

By Dennis Hathaway, Former President, Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight

I wasn’t at all surprised when former LA City Councilman Mitchell Englander was caught up in a City Hall corruption probe and pleaded guilty to a charge that will almost certainly lead to a prison term.

As head of a non-profit organization doing battle with companies bent on plastering the city with billboards and other forms of sign blight, I spent many hours in the chambers and meeting rooms of City Hall. There I got a close-up look at the councilman who touted his service as an LAPD reserve officer and fashioned himself as a champion of law and order.

Contrary to that image, I found him to be venal and self-serving. He accepted free billboard campaign advertising from a company whose interests were directly affected by his votes. He used public service ads paid for by a billboard company to spread his face through his district. As a member of the council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, he promoted the wish lists of Clear Channel, Lamar and the other big billboard companies in a transparent manner.

To be fair, the chairman of the PLUM committee, Jose Huizar, also took campaign contributions in the form of free billboard advertising, as did some other council members. Huizar was also a promoter of the interests of Clear Channel, Lamar, Outfront Media, and others. But while he has been identified as another target of the corruption probe, he hasn’t yet been charged with any crime.

My first direct experience with Englander came ten years ago, when our organization partnered with other non-profits to push for a ban on alcohol advertising on street furniture and other forms of public property. Our argument was the city should not be, in effect, a promoter of alcohol even though it was legal. We quickly got the support of Councilman Richard Alarcon, who introduced a motion to that effect. It was seconded by Bill Rosendahl, Paul Koretz, Tony Cardenas, and Huizar.

The motion went to the council’s Public Safety Committee, chaired by Englander. While ads for beer and hard liquor continued to appear in significant numbers at bus stops and street corner kiosks, we solicited community impact statements from neighborhood councils and expressions of supports from groups fighting alcohol and drug abuse. But there was nary a peep from the committee and its chairman.

Finally, ten months later, the committee asked the city’s chief legislative analyst for a report on the subject. In the meantime, I had spoken to one of the lobbyists for the company with the street furniture contract, who told me that it opposed the ban but would consider running public service ads about alcohol abuse. An ad at a bus stop saying “Don’t Drink and Drive” or “Drink Responsibly” a few blocks from another bus stop ad for Maker’s Mark whiskey? It struck me as absurd.

The lobbyist also told me that the company got 20 per cent of its revenue from alcohol ads, and loss of that revenue would translate into a loss of revenue to the city from the street furniture contract.

Was that why Englander, the law and order stalwart, was seemingly dragging his feet even though studies had been cited showing the social and financial costs of alcohol abuse in the city? Or were the billboard companies whispering in his ear about upcoming political campaigns?

The measure languished for another two years. The Budget and Finance Committee had a look at it and the Public Safety Committee asked for more information regarding the potential loss of revenue. Alarcon threatened a move to force the measure to the council floor.

Finally, the committee gave its unanimous approval. As people who had been working for the ban gathered outside the meeting room for a group photograph, Englander appeared and asked to be included in the picture. Given the delays in his committee, that struck more than a few as opportunism.

The measure then breezed through the full council on a unanimous vote.

But I got my longest look at Englander in action at meetings of the PLUM committee, which handles almost all signage and billboard legislation. When a stricter sign ordinance passed by the City Planning Commission came up in the committee, he opposed taking action and called for going over it “line by line” even though it had been sent to the committee almost a year earlier. At later meetings he was highly critical of the idea of restricting digital billboards to special districts and called for “amnesty” for the many billboards in the city that were out of compliance with their permits or lacked any permits at all. Nobody in the building or planning departments had suggested such a thing, but it was high on the wish lists of Clear Channel, et al.

While still a committee member and in a position to vote on billboard legislation, he ran for a seat on County Board of Supervisors. During his campaign, more than 100 billboards popped up in the San Fernando Valley touting his candidacy. These billboards were paid for, not by his campaign, but by Lamar Advertising, which stood to profit handsomely from a vote in favor of new digital billboards.

During that ultimately unsuccessful campaign, he took more than $20,000 from outdoor advertising companies and their lobbyists. Demonstrating the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, a photograph surfaced during the campaign that showed him with his arm around the head of a major lobbying firm representing Clear Channel.

Things got personal during a PLUM committee meeting in 2016. As a city employee was giving a report regarding billboards, he addressed me by name and said I should listen carefully, because I almost always got things wrong in the blog posts and articles I wrote on the subject.

I didn’t have an opportunity to address this slander at the meeting, so I sent his office an e-mail asking him to specify the things he believed I got wrong so that I could address them. I had always worked hard to be factually accurate, and his accusation not only pained me personally but could affect my credibility with people who depended upon those posts and articles for information.

He didn’t respond. At the next PLUM committee meeting I stood at the microphone in the public comment period and challenged him directly to either back up his accusation or retract it. He didn’t respond then, either. I finally wrote an open letter to him.

I feel sorry for his family and what they will inevitably go through by having a husband and father charged with a crime and sent to prison. I feel sorry for the constituents who looked to him to represent their interests, not the interests of developers willing to slip him envelopes full of cash.

But I don’t feel a shred of sympathy for him. He was a politician who put his own interests above principle, and the sooner the city rids itself of politicians of his ilk, the better. But it can’t depend upon the FBI to root out this blight.

The city has an obligation to act to remove the temptations that lead morally and ethically deficient politicians like Englander down the path of corruption, whether that corruption be blatantly illegal, as in taking an envelope of cash and then lying about it, or legal, as in accepting campaign contributions clearly meant to result in favorable votes.

Billboards: Lack of Leadership at City Hall

The most recent meeting of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee of the City Council (August 13) did not move the ball forward. Or backward for that matter. Despite record turnout from Neighborhood Councils, the members of the PLUM Committee continue to kick the can down the road, testing our endurance and patience. There is no progress to report, mostly because there is very little leadership on this issue from our elected officials.

What was accomplished? The Planning Dept. staff gave a multi-point report. Much of it was taken up with the matter of discretion, an arcane legal issue that the City needs to resolve in order to minimize future lawsuits over any eventual bill.

Of much greater importance to citizens were the discussions about where to locate digital signs. Several ideas were raised, such as locating them on public property, at select intersections, and in sign districts with less restrictive definitions called Tier 3. All of these options would allow digital signs outside sign districts zoned Regional Commercial, which is the most highly commercialized zoning designation in the City.

Here’s the rub: All 24 Neighborhood Councils that have weighed in on this matter already oppose what PLUM is doing.

The Councils explicitly stated that they favored keeping digital signs only in those restrictive Regional Commercial sign districts. Several Neighborhood Councils sent representatives to the meeting, and they all spoke eloquently in favor of that preferred option. The Sign-Districts-only option tracks closely with what the City Planning Commission recommended in 2015 for digital signs in its version of the legislation, commonly known as Version B Plus.

The claimed justification for expanding site eligibility for digital signs into Tier 3 and other areas is that doing so would allow for more takedowns of old static signs in wider areas of the city.

But that’s a bogus argument for three reasons:

—Because there are already about a dozen sign districts that meet the Regional Commercial criterion.
—Because the takedowns can already come from anywhere the Council determines.
—If ever they decided to enforce the existing sign law, 960 signs are already out of compliance and could be cited for fines and/or removal.

The most telling moment came near the end of the hearing, when PLUM Committee chair Marqueece Harris-Dawson called on all the other members to speak on the matter. Council Member Bob Blumenfield stated, “Billboards should not go where they are not wanted,” the most welcome breath of fresh air we heard all day. The other members talked aimlessly about “finding balance” and even staging “community workshops” which is completely unnecessary given that so many Neighborhood Councils have already weighed in on this matter which has been pending for, oh, at least 8 years depending on how you count.

Who is running things here? Nobody. Nobody on the PLUM Committee seems to have any vision of what LA ought to look like, and that is exactly what’s at stake in this legislation. After hearing the reports, the PLUM Committee voted to send the report to the City Planning Commission for its comments, a bureaucratic move. We will be watching to make sure that the Planning Commission stays true to Version B Plus which it proposed in 2015, and which 24 Neighborhood Councils have already endorsed.

Executive Summary: Hold on. Stay in this. Keep watching. Don’t let up. We will report further after the Planning Commission takes yet another stab at this.

Patrick Frank, President

Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight

Action Alert: An Important PLUM Meeting

The next meeting of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee of the City Council, which will take place Tuesday Aug. 13 at 2:30pm, is the most important one so far this year. The PLUM Committee will consider the latest set of reports that it commissioned from the staff of the Planning Department. Neighborhood Councils need to be on the lookout in case some of the recommendations in those reports end up in the proposed Citywide Sign Ordinance that the committee is now working on.

Specifically, the PLUM Committee asked the staff to find a range of possible legal ways for the Council to all digital signs outside of the already highly commercialized Sign Districts. Some of these options include specifying that certain types of intersections qualify for digital signs, that planning districts can opt in for digital signs, allowing digital signs on public property, and others. These options all go exactly contrary to the expressed wishes of every Neighborhood Council that has spoken on this question. No Neighborhood Council has yet spoken in favor of any option in which digital signs are allowed outside of Sign Districts.

If you are a Neighborhood Council Board member, and your NC filed a Community Impact Statement on this question (Council File 11-1705), come to the meeting and speak. You will be allowed three minutes, which is more than the sign company lobbyists will get.

If you are a concerned citizen, send a comment reflecting your views to the PLUM Committee urging them to embrace the moderate compromise solution of allowing digital signs in Sign Districts only. Urge them to reject the options that allow digital signs outside sign districts.

Here is the address of the new public comment system. It’s very easy. All you need is the Council File Number, which is 11-1705:

I will see you at the meeting!

Patrick Frank, President

Defining Billboard Blight: Even one can be too many

Billboard blight takes many forms, depending on the type of sign and its location. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography given in 1964 (“I know it when I see it”) is useful as an analogy; many people might define billboard blight in the same way. We most often learn of billboard blight through citizen complaints, but in some areas even the billboard companies admit that blight exists. The following discussion is based on consultation with board members of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

For traditional static billboards, even one billboard can be too many, if it blocks or impairs an otherwise beautiful spot, or if it occupies a prominent site. The latter is the case at the north end of Gaffey Street in San Pedro, where citizens have complained to their council member about a large billboard on a lot at the top of that sloping street. The planning deputy for that council district told the citizens that someone would have to buy the land beneath the sign and terminate the lease. Just one billboard caused blight at that location.

A case where a few billboards have caused blight is along Culver Blvd in the former streetcar track in the Del Rey neighborhood. Many citizens have complained about the series of older sign structures in that parklike setting, which people use for recreation. Such aesthetically attractive settings are especially sensitive to blight.

As seen in the above cases, just one or a handful of billboards may be enough to cause blight because they distract from driving and compete unnecessarily for attention that could be given to the streetscape, the architecture, or the Los Angeles sky. Billboards in any quantity severely hobble efforts at community beautification.

In the case of digital billboards, any and every such billboard outside of a highly commercialized Sign District constitutes billboard blight. This is because such signs are visible from long distances, because they stand out from the surroundings so much that they lower nearby property values, and because most people do not want to live anywhere near them.

One of the main causes of billboard blight in Los Angeles is negligence by government officials. Lax sign enforcement over many years in the city of Los Angeles has allowed sign companies to erect hundreds of signs for which the permits are today lacking or noncompliant. Negligence by elected officials is another; some council members have softened their stances regarding billboard blight under the influence of campaign contributions of free billboard space at election time. The ultimate cause of billboard blight is the commercial imperative that sign companies constantly act upon. Preventing or reducing blight requires a countervailing sense of urgency of at least equal potency. Such urgency should energize a desire to make Los Angeles more attractive, and lead to preventing or reducing billboard blight.

Patrick Frank

Good News and Bad News at City Hall

The good news was that the PLUM Committee is investigating how to move away from adopting its own PLUM Version. However, the bad news is that Version B Plus also seems to have some opposition. There are parts of the city where there are many billboards, chiefly low-income areas, that don’t qualify to be sign districts and thus would not qualify for the takedowns that would be required in order to erect new digital signs.

The Committee Chair, Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson, made several requests of Planning Dept. staff. One was to define Billboard Blight, which we will offer to help them do. Another was to envision a middle ground between the two versions, which would allow digital signs in more areas than Version B Plus allows and fewer areas than the PLUM Version allows. We would not favor such a solution because of the danger of spreading digital signs.

Another request to the Planning Dept. was to study how neighborhoods outside sign districts could opt in to digital billboards. This sounded tempting if the city as a whole is presumed to be off-limits unless a neighborhood opted in. That possibility was of course opposed by the sign companies, who were present at the meeting and opined at length about the laughable “benefits” of digital signs and their wish to spread those benefits equally across Los Angeles. Some labor union members were also present, urging the erection of digital signs, which is ironic because the average life of an LED bulb in a digital sign (seven years) means that digital signs will require far less labor than static signs.

The Planning Dept. staff is to report back at the August 13 meeting, so save the date!!!!

I was interviewed today for KCRW by Frances Anderton. She said that a clip may be aired tonight (Wed. May 29) during drive time, with a further possibility of more extended coverage during her Design and Architecture show on Tuesday.

Patrick Frank

How to Regulate Billboards

How many and what kinds of billboards we have will weigh heavily in determining the appearance of the city of Los Angeles, especially as the city hosts the Olympics in 2028 and very possibly the World Cup before that. The regulation of these structures is thus an important part of city government, but legislation regulating billboards has been pending in the council for eight years.
A Citywide Sign Ordinance, Council File 11-1705, is finally coming before the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee on Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day. Fortunately, there is a template available for reasonable regulation of signs, and it deserves support.
The key issue is regulation of digital billboards: These are signs with hundreds of bright LED bulbs that change their message like a slide show every 8 seconds. There are few of them in Los Angeles currently, though more exist in Inglewood and other communities along I-405. You have probably seen them, or maybe you have even been distracted by them, as many studies have proven will happen. These signs are both very lucrative for sign companies and extremely bothersome to passersby, be they local residents, drivers, or pedestrians. More than 100 cities in Texas, hardly a hotbed of anti-business sentiment, have banned them entirely.
Coming before the PLUM Committee on Tuesday will be two visions for how to regulate such billboards. Back in 2015, the City Planning Commission drafted legislation that would restrict such digital signs to designated sign districts: heavily traveled areas zoned Regional Commercial such as Sunset Boulevard and LA Live. This is by far the better of the two options.
In contrast, the PLUM Committee under its previous chair José Huizar drafted its own version in late 2017 under the influence of the sign companies, which would allow digital signs on almost any commercial lot. For example, most intersections that how have traditional billboards could see many of them change to digital under this version. Not surprisingly, the committee chair benefitted from more than 100 free billboards, donated by sign companies, during his most recent re-election campaign.
The Planning Commission version (known as Version B Plus) is far more sane and sensible because it keeps digital signs in dense commercial zones where fewer homes suffer the flashing nuisance and traffic moves more slowly, reducing the risk of accidents and danger to pedestrians. If the sign companies favor the PLUM version, the people seem to favor Version B Plus. A total of 23 neighborhood councils have weighed in with community impact statements specifically favoring B Plus over the PLUM version; none has opined in the other direction.
The makeup of the PLUM Committee has changed in the last few months. We hope that the reconstituted committee will follow the express wishes of the people in this matter and support Version B Plus. The future appearance of Los Angeles depends on it.

Success! The motion to suppress changing digital ads on ride sharing vehicles advanced.

The Transportation Committee of the L.A. City Council yesterday heard the voices of all of those who sent messages about the intrusion of digital ads onto our city streets. By a vote of 2-1, the members approved the motion to start enforcing the law and get those distracting and ugly rooftop signs off of ridesharing vehicles such as Uber and Lyft.

Big Thanks to all who wrote in!

Our arguments were important: The signs are distracting, ugly, intrusive, dangerous, and illegal. On that last point we received valuable support from the City Attorney, who powerfully contradicted the legal reasoning of the lobbyists.

How it broke down:

Committee Chair Mike Bonin seemed to be on our side from the start; he gets it. He also pointed out the irony that some of the same groups that favored the digital signs (Chambers of Commerce) were also opposed to raising the minimum wage. Council Member Nury Martínez wondered if the sign company was sharing enough revenue with the actual drivers who carry the signs; she voted with us. Council Member Paul Koretz, who seems to favor the taxi drivers’ union in all things, voted No.

What’s next:

It goes to the full council. With so many legal arguments on top of the aesthetic and sefety arguments, it’s hard to imagine the full council reversing this.

But we will stay on top of it!

Patrick Frank, President

Do you use Waze? Billboards Are Spying on You!

It’s not only digital billboards that can collect information from passing drivers. Old-fashioned static signs too are already being linked to the smartphones of passing drivers.

If you are using Waze and you pass a “Geo-fenced” billboard, that billboard will send its graphic content to your smartphone screen, duplicating the billboard’s message, and suggest that you go to the nearest branch of the business advertised. No, we are not making this up! It is being done on a trial basis in Southern California already, a partnership between Waze and McDonald’s.      

Here’s how it works:  You stop for more than 4 seconds at a traffic light near a McDonald’s billboard, and the billboard content appears at the top of your Waze screen, together with directions to the nearest McDonald’s.

It’s making money for the company. During a two-month period last year, 1.9 million unique users passed these Geo-fenced billboards in SoCal, and 8,400 people actually clicked on the duplicated billboard on their screen, changed their destination, and drove to a McDonald’s.

This makes driving more dangerous for all of us. This app is causing thousands of people every day to look even longer at their cell phones while they’re driving.

The service is called Zero-Speed Takeover. It’s one of the many methods that Waze uses to integrate ads into your driving experience, along with arrows, pins, and promoted searches.

It’s yet another reason to oppose billboards along any roadside.

Action Alert: Graphic Ads on Cars

Los Angeles is about to suffer an invasion of a new kind of advertising.
But it’s still possible to stop it. Maybe you have seen the digital ad signs on top of taxis, Uber and Lyft cars in the city. Here’s how they look:

These signs change every 8 seconds, just like digital billboards. Some of them are even animated. They’re made by a startup called Firefly, which just got $21 million in venture capital for a pilot launch in S.F. and L.A. Drivers can voluntarily bolt one of these atop their cars and earn money for each day driven.
Do we have to put up with this?
We already have ads on bus benches, bus shelters, street furniture, and businesses. Not to mention the thousands of billboards that litter our streets. These new Firefly signs have started to appear, taking digital advertising into literally every residential neighborhood in the city.
Maybe not.
The City Attorney filed a brief late last year saying that these signs violate the California Vehicle Code, because flashing, changing, and animation are prohibited on vehicles other than turn signals. And then L.A. Council Members Blumenfield and Harris-Dawson wrote a motion (Council File 19-0104) urging the City Council to follow state law and instruct the LAPD to start enforcing a ban on these signs. Thank you, council members.
The lobbyists rose up.
Of course they did. Firefly commissioned a legal brief which alleged that the City Attorney was misinterpreting the Vehicle Code. And that the signs are a source of revenue for drivers. And that the signs can be used for emergency and public service announcements (as if we needed them).
It’s time for you to rise up.
The council members’ motion is now before the City Council Transportation Committee. It needs some positive reinforcement. Send an e-mail message like the one below to the committee secretary: and mention the case file in your subject line: 19-0104. Send a copy to your own council member also if you like.
Here are some points to raise:
Dear Mr. White
Please convey to the members of the Transportation Committee my support for the motion offered on 1-29-19 by Council Members Blumenfield and Harris-Dawson. I too oppose the incursion of an entirely new form of digital advertising onto our streets. These “Firefly” signs are dangerous, ugly, distracting, and even illegal under the California Vehicle Code. Our visual environment is already burdened enough with the clutter of advertising, and these signs will take rotating digital ads into every neighborhood of the city, including residential neighborhoods where they have never been before. We need to stop this now before it spreads any further.
Do it soon.
The motion will come before the Transportation Committee in the next few weeks, and then it will go to the full council. The time to write is now.

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