Candidates in the March 3 primary election for the Los Angeles City Council were asked six questions about current billboard and signage issues facing the city. Below are the answers of those who responded. (Note: Responses from candidates whose names are marked with an asterisk were received after the date the survey results were originally published.)
Question 1: More digital billboards for Los Angeles?
The revised citywide sign ordinance now being considered by the City Council’s PLUM committee restricts new digital billboards and off-site signs to special sign districts in 22 areas zoned for high-intensity commercial use, such as L.A. Live, parts of Hollywood Blvd., Universal City and others. But the committee wants plans drawn up to allow new digital billboards on commercial streets, freeways, or parcels of public property throughout the city. Do you agree with allowing new digital billboards anywhere, or do you believe they should be restricted to special sign districts in those high-intensity commercial zones?
(Note: responses by council district)
Eric Preven: Restricted.
Sheila Irani: I think the digital billboards can be very distracting and would vote to keep them in the 22 districts. That seems like a generous resolution over a complete ban.
Fred Mariscal: I believe they should be restricted to special sign districts in those high-intensity commercial zones.
Joan Pelico: Restricted to special sign districts in high-intensity commercial zones.
Carolyn Ramsay: I support digital signs in special sign districts only and oppose opening the door to allow them on commercial streets, freeways or parcels of public property.
David Ryu: I do not think that digital billboards should be allowed everywhere, and do believe that they should be restricted to districts in high-intensity commercial zones.
Steve Veres: Safety comes first for me. I believe Billboards should be restricted to very specific high intensity areas and should only be allow in exchange for removing billboard in other less intense areas.
*Tomas O’Grady: I believe the city should not expand the locations that digital signs are permitted. Digital signs are broadly impactful on communities across the city, even miles from a sign’s location. I can only imagine allowing new digital signage in cases in which it is openly vetted by impacted communities and strongly supported – not in backroom deals between city council offices and outdoor advertisers.
Nury Martinez: Used effectively and appropriately, billboards (whether static or digital) can complement and leverage economic activity in targeted areas. Sign districts are part of these areas. Rather than allowing new digital billboards anywhere, there should be guidelines for establishing which streets/properties/areas would be appropriate. If a proposal satisfies those preliminary guidelines, then there needs to be a thorough and public vetting process to consider whether or not to allow these digital signs. The City needs to maintain “hands-on” control of digital billboard installation, since the desired placement is generally to capitalize on exposure of the public right of way.
In addition, any consideration of digital billboards must also include a true community benefit. In my district, for example, there is an overwhelming concentration of billboard content that is inappropriate for many neighborhoods. Children often have to walk to school bombarded with images of scantily clad women advertising strip clubs, or of alcohol advertising, etc. Beyond removing unpermitted billboards, any consideration for digital billboards must also include requirements to limit such inappropriate advertisement. An effective approach to billboards will not only protect communities from blight, it will leverage the City’s position to ensure billboards in our communities do not overburden kids with negative or inappropriate messaging.
Gloria Molina: First of all, I would not permit one more billboard until the companies agree to remove all unpermitted billboards and agree to follow the sign ordinance before they should be allowed any digital billboards and again only in clearly defined sign districts. Council members who receive funding beyond the $700 limit should recuse themselves from the vote.
Nadine Momoyo Diaz: In order to ensure a balanced commercial corridor with marketing opportunities for businesses to flourish in the city, there needs to be a plan with a policy that includes “restrictions and special signage districts located in high-density commercial zones” vs other public areas and commercial streets. Before the City Council PLUM committee requests to have “plans drawn up to allow new digital billboards on commercial streets, freeways, or parcels of public land throughout the City,” there needs to be an assessment and evaluation of the targeted billboards in question, to determine whether or not there is a benefit to those within a 500 ft. radius, hence positive outcomes for the community and surrounding neighborhood at large. How many people will benefit and who are they? Business owner(s)? Neighbors? Surrounding community?
*Jose Huizar: The draft of the Sign Ordinance currently under consideration by the PLUM Committee would restrict areas available for new off-site advertising by over 90%. Currently, Sign Districts may be established in any property zoned for commercial or manufacturing uses. The draft Sign Ordinance would restrict potential future Sign Districts to only areas with a Land Use Designation of Regional Center or Regional Commercial, like some parts of Hollywood or Downtown. Further, as chair of PLUM, at the last hearing, I moved to double the amount of takedown (of existing signage) required for any new signage in addition to requiring public benefits. I strongly support protections against any additional signage in our residential communities and believe we should use every mechanism available to take down the existing off-site advertising that clutters our communities.
Question 2: Amnesty for unpermitted and non-compliant billboards? A city survey has shown that there are approximately 1,000 billboards in the city that either lack permits or have been altered in violation of their permits. The PLUM committee is considering legalizing all of them through a billboard “amnesty.” Do you support this, or do you believe that the city should use all means at its disposal to require those billboards to be brought into compliance or taken down?
Eric Preven: All means at its disposal.
Sheila Irani: Amnesty should include fees, permits and delinguent charges so that the City can recuperate lost funds from these 1000 billboards. If the fees are not paid, the billboards should come down.
Fred Mariscal: I believe that the city should use all means at its disposal to require those billboards to be brought into compliance or be taken down.
Joan Pelico: Brought into compliance and charged accordingly for prior placement.
Carolyn Ramsay: I do not support billboard amnesty. The city must require that all billboards be brought into compliance.
David Ryu: No, I do not support grandfathering in older signs.
Steve Veres: I do not support amnesty. Because the city has done a poor job monitoring and managing these billboard we may subject to litigation we would struggle to win. I would assess and categorize the no compliance billboard. Remove what is clear, documented and egregious and work toward a settlement on areas where we are vulnerable.
*Tomas O’Grady: The city should absolutely enforce its laws, cite unlawful signs, and fight to bring down illegal signs and collect penalties. The city has spent thousands of dollars in court to maintain its current sign laws, including the law that created the survey program. The city should not be cowed by the threat of lawsuits.
Nury Martinez: I do not support amnesty. The City has an obligation to public safety, to ensure that ALL billboards are compliant. We cannot pick and choose when to enforce our codes. The City falling behind on some of its responsibilities is not an excuse for amnesty.
Gloria Molina: I do not believe any form of amnesty for unpermitted billboards should be allowed. The proposed language of taking 2 down for every one is setting the bar far too low. Illegal is illegal.
Nadine Momoyo Diaz: I do not support the PLUM committee’s consideration to legalize illegal billboards through an “amnesty” program. There needs to be due process for each billboard and fines and/or fees applied that can be used to reduce the City’s deficit. The billboard companies need to comply with the laws, codes and regulations, and the City needs to enforce the law when billboards are non-compliant.
*Jose Huizar: I absolutely do not support amnesty for billboards. We’ve taken great steps in recent years to reign in out of control signage. In 2009 (while I was on PLUM), we outlawed giant wall wraps that had sprouted up all over the City but that blocked off windows, light, and fire access. Since I’ve been Chair of PLUM, we’ve finished the first complete Citywide inventory of off-site signage and have raised the fees and cycle time for off-site sign inspections. While our City’s legal experts have advised that State law clearly protects many of the existing outdoor advertisement signs you mention, the increased takedown requirements that I implemented will allow us to use every means at our disposal to create legislation that results in the net reduction of signs throughout our communities.
Question 3: Rebutting the presumption of legality? The rationale given for the proposed amnesty is that a state law grants a “rebuttable presumption” of legality to billboards that haven’t been cited within five years of being erected or altered. Do you believe the city should make a comprehensive search for evidence to rebut the presumption, including enlisting the help of property owners and other community members who may possess such evidence?
Eric Preven: Yes.
Sheila Irani: I don’t know enough to honestly answer, but on the surface the legal costs seem very steep vs the return, especially if we can use amnesty as a method to recuperate lost revenues with delinquent fines.
Fred Mariscal: I believe the city should make a comprehensive search for evidence to rebut the presumption, including enlisting the help of property owners and other community members who may possess such evidence.
Joan Pelico: Yes, a search should be done. Some communities have already been involved with surveying areas.
Carolyn Ramsay: Yes, I would fight for a fully transparent process that includes community members and property owners so that the City has a full and accurate account of the billboards in place. We must establish an accurate baseline number and location of billboards in order for this process to have any legal foundation and credibility with the public.
David Ryu: Yes.
Steve Veres: Yes we should make an active and aggressive effort to rebut the presumption.
*Tomas O’Grady: I think the city should work to rebut the presumption – but first the city needs to enforce its laws against illegal signs.
Nury Martinez: Yes. As I stated before, the City falling behind on some of its responsibilities is not an excuse for amnesty, nor is it justification for the City to approach the issue assuming the presumption of legality. Instead, an honest and committed effort by City staff must be made to search for records or evidence that confirm or disprove legality. The City must also be open and willing to work with community members and property owners who may have historical knowledge and evidence – it only serves to strengthen our comprehensive search.
Gloria Molina: I think we should make every effort to make a case. We should also change the law in Sacramento.
Nadine Momoyo Diaz: Yes, in determining the legality of any/all billboards, no matter the length of time in existence, the City should make a comprehensive search for evidence to “rebut the presumption” by “enlisting the help of property owners and other community members who may possess such evidence.” In the interim, legislation should be created to over-ride “rebuttable presumption” at the state and local level.
*Jose Huizar: Given our limited resources, rather than attempting to hold endless hearings regarding the merits of nearly 1,000 individual signs, we are looking for a legislative solution that results in the reduction of signs throughout the City. I am committed to reducing the sign clutter throughout our communities.
Question 4: Free billboard ads for PLUM committee members? All three PLUM committee members are currently getting, or have gotten in the past, free billboard advertising from companies such Lamar Advertising and CBS Outdoor. Do you believe that this compromises their decisions on sign legislation, such as allowing new digital billboards? If so, what measures should be taken to restore confidence that the committee is acting in the public, as opposed to billboard industry, interest?
Eric Preven: It’s completely inappropriate for Mr. Krekoian, who is the Chairman of the Budget and Finance committee, charged with fighting the litigation by Lamar against the City, to accept the benefit of these independent expenditures. And how could it not impact his judgement? Outrageous.
Sheila Irani: They should recuse themselves from decisions regarding the billboards.
Fred Mariscal: I do believe that compromises their decisions on sign legislation. Committee members should not be allowed to receive any free billboard advertising. They should be removed from the committee as soon as possible, and replaced with members who do not have a conflict of interest. We need to establish a rule that in order to be a member of the committee you should not have received or currently receive free billboard advertising.
Joan Pelico: Transparency, disclosure on their website
Carolyn Ramsay: I will consult with the City Attorney to examine this issue and determine whether the city can legally prevent billboard companies from supporting political candidates through Independent Expenditures. I believe that what they’re doing is protected by the First Amendment. If that is the case, I will push for more stringent reporting requirements to achieve greater transparency when billboard companies support candidates in this way.
David Ryu: Yes, I do believe it could compromise their decisions. The committee and Council generally has to be more transparent in these donations – whether they are cash, or in the form of free advertising. I can tell you that I would not be swayed by any “free” advertising that was sent my way, and would affirmatively tell the billboard companies that their support in the form of free advertising was unwanted and should be ended immediately.
Steve Veres: I don’t have signs nor would I want them. A gray area for me is if advertising is used to attack an elected official. I’ve worked in positions where billboards posted phone numbers of officials demanding action against them for supporting plastic bag bans or for workers compensation reform. Public confidence is important but billboards can cut both ways. I’m generally wary of any independent expenditure and would likely lean toward penalties that would forfeit the billboards themselves if they were used in illegal or fraudulent way.
*Tomas O’Grady: PLUM members recusal on this legislation is a bit unrealistic since we’re talking about a citywide law not a specific development project. But the PLUM committee, and the city council in general, can regain the public’s trust by truly debating these issues in the public view. There is nothing more discouraging for interested members of the public than to attend a public committee meeting, voice an opinion, and have the committee act without debate, and with their minds clearly having been made before the public hearing. The big companies have the ear of decision-makers in a way that community members do not have. The public knows this, and it has to change.
Nury Martinez: As a current candidate for whom Lamar Advertising has made an unsolicited independent expenditure, I can say from my personal experience that my position will not be compromised. Interestingly, in the last election, Lamar Advertising supported my opponent. Their hop-scotching attempts to support candidates bemuses me.
Gloria Molina: Each and every member who receives more than the allowable limit of $700 must recuse themselves from the vote.
Nadine Momoyo Diaz: The current PLUM committee is represented by Councilmen Jose Huizar (President), and Gil Cedillo and Mitch Englander. Given the fact they have received campaign billboards from both Lamar Advertising and CBS Outdoor, they need to recuse themselves as it relates to the decision making and planning process of current and future billboard regulations, policies, procedures and laws. Because they have received and accepted support from the billboard companies for election purposes, there is a conflict of interest in the decision making process of the PLUM committee. How can the PLUM effectively represent the general public when enforcement becomes an issues based on political campaign support for that particular candidate? Currently, I am running against the CD 14 incumbent who I challenged at a debate to remove his Lamar Advertising campaign signs since he indicated he was opposed to billboards and campaign support from billboard companies. The billboards are still up.
*Jose Huizar: By federal law, candidates do not receive any money and have absolutely no control, contact or say over any independent expenditure that any person or entity does during the course of a campaign. Zero. And my record speaks for itself. As Chair of PLUM, I’ve moved to ensure that the new Sign Ordinance will restrict down the areas of the City available for new off-site advertising by over 90%. I further moved to double the amount of takedown required in any new Sign District. I’ve been strong in my opposition to sign proliferation in our residential communities. And I have a record of environmental service and protection against blight in the communities I represent that I am proud to say led to Elected Official of Year recognitions from the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, as well as their overwhelming support in my re-election.
Question 5: Should billboards be taxed? Billboard advertising is directed toward a captive audience of motorists and pedestrians using public streets and sidewalks, yet the billboard industry contributes nothing toward the maintenance of that infrastructure. Do you believe the city should levy some kind of tax or fee to ensure that the companies share in the cost of public amenities that make their billboards valuable?
Eric Preven: Yes of course.
Sheila Irani: Yes
Fred Mariscal: I believe they should be restricted to special sign districts in those high-intensity commercial zones.
Joan Pelico: A thought, but may not be legally allowable.
Carolyn Ramsay: The city already generates revenue from the billboard industry via the gross receipts tax. We should take a look at our permitting and inspection fees for billboards to make sure they are in line with other cities charge and that they make sense in the context of the impacts the billboards have on our communities.
David Ryu: Yes.
Steve Veres: Yes.
*Tomas O’Grady: I believe that the bigger issue is whether outdoor advertising should be so pervasive in the city landscape. If less signage is better, it is not worth keeping or growing signs just to raise revenue.
Nury Martinez: Yes, I think there is a direct correlation between the placement and viability of billboards and the quality of public infrastructure or amenities. Roads and sidewalks in poor condition, or with limited public transportation result in a reduced captive audience being targeted, since they will look for alternative routes. Whether it’s a tax or a specific permitting fee, companies should share in the cost of maintaining or improving public amenities.
Gloria Molina: Yes, billboards should be taxed and those funds should stay within the district that has the billboards.
Nadine Momoyo Diaz: I believe the City of LA should levy some kind of tax or fee to ensure all companies share in the cost of public amenities that make their billboards valuable. Moreover, the company that hires the billboard company to market the product is responsible for other fees based on the content of product. For instance, cigarette companies, fast food eateries, unhealthy companies that produce unhealthy products should pay a higher tax and fee for billboard advertising. In turn the billboard company should also be charged a higher tax to advertise the unhealthy products.
*Jose Huizar: Yes. Among other things, the draft Sign Ordinance significantly increases the administrative penalties for signs out of compliance. Each Sign District will have takedown and community benefits requirements. Beyond that, I would support efforts to create a mechanism to tax billboards to fund improvements to the public realm.
Question 6: Regulating on-site digital signage?
On-site signs for businesses can now be converted to digital without any special permission. Many residents have concerns about such things as change of neighborhood character, traffic safety, and light trespass into homes and apartments. Other cities in the country have passed new digital sign ordinances that regulate such things as size, brightness, hours of operation, duration of message change, spacing, proximity to residential zones, and number of digital signs on a property. Do you believe that the city should adopt such regulations as soon as possible?
Eric Preven: Absolutely.
Sheila Irani: Yes
Fred Mariscal: I do believe that the city should adopt such regulations as soon as possible.
Joan Pelico: Yes. In the district 5 I work for we have had digital billboards removed due to nuisance to residential homes.
Carolyn Ramsay: I would support an ordinance that regulates the size, brightness, hours of operation, duration of message change, spacing, proximity to residential zones and number of digital signs on a property. I would insist on a full public process with community involvement as the regulations are developed.
David Ryu: Yes – I think that time, place, size, brightness, etc. all provide context and are relevant as to whether lighted signs should be banned from a particular location. Just like we set out special districts where lighted signs are appropriate, we should have districts where lighted signs are deemed inappropriate.
Steve Veres: Yes.
*Tomas O’Grady: Yes, I believe the city should regulate on-site digital signs, and should likely severely restrict them.
Nury Martinez: Yes, we need to adopt protections for our neighborhoods, since they can be negatively affected by a conversion to on-site digital signage. In the same way we have a “commercial corner” ordinance limiting the activities of businesses in certain areas, any proposal for on-site digital should go through a public vetting process. In my opinion, there is a real difference between allowable on-site static advertising and on-site digital signage. It is that difference, be it light, community character, size, etc, that warrants the adoption of regulations for on-site digital signage. improving public amenities.
Gloria Molina: Yes, that is the work that the council should be engaging in, instead of bargaining with the sign industry.
Nadine Momoyo Diaz: The City of L.A. needs to adopt and enforce policies and regulations that pertain to digital on-site signs for businesses. Enforcement needs to be done in tandem with both digital and non-digital billboards that are out of compliance.
Public input from directly impacted residents should be gathered, discussed, analyzed and considered during the regulation process as it pertains to digital and non-digital billboards. Often times the City of L.A. PLUM committee ignores feedback, comments and the concerns from the residents who are directly impacted by land use projects and billboards within a 500 ft. to 1000 ft. radius.
Since other cities and states in the U.S. have passed new legislation for digital signage, the City of Los Angeles and the State can also consider new legislation for digital signage by modeling after other cities and states that have passed new legislation. We do not have to “reinvent the wheel,” but we do need to “think-out-of-the box.” The state of Alaska for instance prohibits any/all billboard signage because it interferes with the natural environment and habitat. It is considered “pollution.” If I had the last word in the City of L.A., I would prohibit any/all commercialized billboards; digital and non-digital. I may consider educational and information billboards for the public, but they too must be considered carefully.
*Jose Huizar: Yes, absolutely. In fact, when the PLUM Committee last heard the draft Sign Ordinance (Dec 2014), I moved an instruction to Planning to clarify that on-site digital signs are not permitted by right. I understand that some types of large commercial uses (hotels, convention centers, car dealers) may need some kind of LED signage, but such requests should be discretionary and require review by the Planning Department and local communities.