L.A. Digital Billboard Wars: Court Documents Show About Face by Billboard Attorneys

In 2005, attorneys representing Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor tried to block a city lawsuit settlement with a third billboard company, claiming that it was illegally reached in closed-door meetings and violated the public’s right to hearings on changes in city ordinances.  Fast forward to Nov. 4 of this year, when a Superior Court judge threw out a 2006 lawsuit settlement with Clear Channel  and CBS Outdoor, citing those same reasons for voiding the agreement permitting the two companies to put up 840 digital billboards throughout the city.  Facing public demands that permits issued thus far for 105 of the digital signs be revoked, those same billboard attorneys who argued in favor of the public interest four years ago are now arguing that because they relied on their own settlement in good faith it would be grossly unfair to force them to return the billboards to their prior, conventional state.

Taking the opposite tack is the Feb. 1, 2005 filing opposing the city’s settlement with Vista Media in a lawsuit in which Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor were also plaintiffs in challenging the city’s right to impose a fee to support a billboard inventory and inspection program.   In that document, the billboard attorneys write, “It has long been settled that a municipality may not do through clandestine acts that which state law requires to be accomplished through open meetings.”  They added that, “the City failed to hold any public hearings or make available relevant data to the public…”

2005 Court Filing by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor

2005 Court Filing by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor

In other words, exactly what happened on Sept. 13, 2006, when the City Council met in closed session and, without a moment of public debate, voted to hand Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor a host of exemptions from city ordinances and zoning regulations, including the right to “modernize” 840 conventional billboards by converting them to digital.

So here’s the question:  What should the City Council say to those attorneys who are now demanding that the city honor its agreement when they argued that an agreement reached in the same manner and with similar provisions four years ago was legally reprehensible and should be rejected?

For many, the answer to that question is simple.  But the City Council will ultimately provide the answer, and there are two meetings this week with the City Attorney’s office to discuss the matter.  Tuesday, a closed session is scheduled with the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, and Wednesday another closed session with the full City Council.

[A brief history for those coming in late:  Vista Media sued the city in 2002, challenging its right to impose a program of inspecting every billboard in the city and levying an annual fee to pay for it.  Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor, and Regency Outdoor joined in the lawsuit.  In 2003, the federal court of appeals upheld the right of the city to conduct such a program, but the companies continued to challenge the amount of the fee—then $314 annually per sign structure—in Superior Court.  It was when the city settled with Vista separately in 2004, lowering the fee and granting other concessions, that CBS and Clear Channel raised their objections.]

Dennis Hathaway

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