Digital Billboards: Just Turn Them Off (Right?)

Back-to-back Digital Billboards in Westwood

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, the West L.A. Area Planning Commission will decide if  the city lawfully issued permits for three digital billboards in the Westwood area.  Late last year, a zoning administrator ruled that two of the billboards, owned by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor, violated local zoning regulations, but that a third billboard, owned by Clear Channel, did not.

Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor appealed the two unfavorable rulings, and three homeowner groups, along with the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, appealed the third.  The planning commission is scheduled to hear all three appeals at the Feb. 17 meeting.

Whatever decision the commission makes is not further appealable.  That means that if the zoning administrator’s ruling is upheld in two cases, and overturned in the third, all three billboards are operating illegally and will have to be turned off.   Doesn’t it?

The following attempts to address that question, as well as summarize the issues involved.  It  was an op-ed written by the president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Billboard Blight and submitted last November to the L.A. Times, but not published.

By Dennis Hathaway

Just turn them off.  That’s the only reasonable, principled answer to a question that may be giving some L.A. City Council members a case of political heartburn, the question of what to do about the digital billboards beaming their brilliantly-lighted, rapidly changing messages at drivers and pedestrians in a wide swath of the city, from Silverlake and Hollywood to West L.A., Venice, and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

The judge who voided the lawsuit settlement giving Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor the right to convert 840 of their conventional billboards to digital used the word “poison” to describe the agreement that exempted the conversions from a variety of zoning regulations, including normal requirements for public notification and hearings.  So why should the 101 billboards put in operation before last December’s moratorium be allowed to continue ringing the cash registers for these multi-billion dollar corporations?

Because, the companies and their business community allies say, a deal is a deal.  Even though the judge held his nose, figuratively speaking, as he threw out the settlement, the city council unanimously approved it, the mayor signed it, and the companies invested millions in the new technology in the belief that they were legally allowed to do so.  To renege on that now would send a chilling message to businesses that they cannot rely upon the city’s word and maybe it’s just better to move elsewhere or not come here in the first place.

This argument was the central theme of testimony by billboard company and business representatives at the Nov. 17 meeting of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee, along with not-so-veiled threats of lawsuits that might cost the city hundreds of millions in damages if it revokes the permits issued for the digital billboards.

For anyone who might be swayed by this argument, it’s worth remembering that this whole mess started seven years ago when Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor sued the city to block a program to conduct an inventory and inspection of all the city’s billboards.   The settlement of that lawsuit was brought to the City Council in 2006 by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who had gotten nearly half a million dollars worth of free billboard advertising from Clear Channel in his initial election campaign.  Smell something here?  The council apparently didn’t, and after a closed-door session, without a scintilla of public discussion, it approved the sweetheart deal that might have stood if a small billboard company named Summit Media hadn’t sued last year to overturn it.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Terry Green noted that the terms of the settlement were actually written by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor attorneys, which would not come as a surprise to anyone who has read all 45 pages of it.  So we have companies that sued the city to stop it from conducting an inventory of their billboards and then concocted a sweetheart settlement that an ethically-challenged City Attorney sold to a credulous City Council.

Although Summit Media attorneys urged Judge Green to also void the permits issued for the 101 billboards, he declined to do so, ruling that the issue was an administrative one for the city to deal with.   He added that citizens could challenge each of the permits through an appeals process, although it’s interesting to speculate whether he would have ruled differently if he had firsthand knowledge of how such a process would work.

More than a year ago, three homeowner’s associations and the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight appealed the permits issued for three digital billboard conversions in the Westwood area.  After being told to go one place and then another, after filing and re-filing documents and paying duplicate appeal fees, after last minute cancellation and postponement of hearings, the appellants finally had their day before a zoning administrator.  On Nov. 25, almost exactly five months later, that administrator issued her ruling that the city should not have issued permits for two of those billboards.

City Council members will hopefully consider this Kafkaesque tale before leaning toward any solution involving citizen appeals of the digital billboard permits.  Because it’s not a solution at all, but a guarantee that most of the permits will simply never be appealed, because the time and expense is simply too much of a deterrent.

What the council will ultimately do is impossible to predict, but one member who seems to have his thinking cap on straight is Dennis Zine, a PLUM Committee member who addressed a fact pointed out by many members of the public who spoke at the meeting. The lawsuit settlement with far-reaching consequences for local communities was not only approved without a single word of public debate, it denied citizens the right to a voice in the erection of these signs that have caused light pollution in people’s homes and neighborhoods and raised serious questions regarding traffic safety and excessive energy use.

“What troubles me most,” Zine said, “is when we betray the public, when we deceive the public, when we’re not credible with the public, it destroys democracy and the foundation of this government, and I find that very disturbing.”

Amen.  Democracy and public trust as opposed to the idea that the city must honor agreements, no matter how outrageously unlawful they happen to be?  An easy call.  Just turn them off.

Dennis Hathaway

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