Follow the Money: Billboard Companies and Their Lobbyists Support City Councilman’s Campaign

L.A. City Councilman Mitch Englander, right, with John Ek, head of one of the city's biggest lobbying firms.

L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander, right, with John Ek, head of one of the city’s most influential lobbying firms.  Credit:  Mayor Sam’s Sister City

In June of this year, Clear Channel Outdoor donated $1,500 to L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander’s campaign for County Board of Supervisors in the 2016 election. That same month, a lobbying firm that represents the company donated the same amount, the maximum allowed, although such a contribution would have been illegal if Englander was running for a city rather than county office.

Those donations are among a total of more than $20,000 given to the Englander campaign by outdoor advertising companies and lobbying firms and their executives in the first six months of 2015.  A number of those lobbying firms represent Clear Channel and other companies that have been pushing for amnesty for unpermitted and out-of-compliance billboards and legislation to allow new digital billboards on L.A.’s commercial streets.

Englander, a member of the City Council’s PLUM committee that has been dealing with contentious billboard issues, proposed the billboard amnesty last year. He has also  opposed restricting digital billboards to sign districts, a restriction that dates all the way back to 2002 when the city approved a ban on new billboards and modifications to existing ones.

The latest version of a citywide sign ordinance approved by the City Planning Commission last month maintains that ban and the sign district restrictions, and will be coming before the five-member PLUM committee, although a date hasn’t been scheduled. The commission also rejected an earlier PLUM committee recommendation that the billboard amnesty proposed by Englander be included in the ordinance.

In addition to Clear Channel, records show donations from billboard companies Summit Media and Outdoor Dimensions, and J. Keith Stephens, a billboard company owner who is currently suing the city over an allegedly illegal billboard. Others donating to Englander’s campaign are Martin Outdoor, the company that holds the city’s bus bench advertising contract, and the California Sign Association, which is fighting the city’s proposed moratorium on digital business signs.

And with a year to go before the election, much more money could be on the way.

Lobbying firms and individual lobbyists registered with the city of L.A. are prohibited by law from making donations to campaigns for city office. Registered lobbyists can hold fundraisers for candidates, and “deliver” contributions from their clients or others.

Lobbyists are required to report those activities on behalf of candidates, but the city ethics law says nothing about an elected official like Englander getting lobbyist campaign contributions while seeking an elective office outside the city.

Which raises the following question: If the intent of the city’s ban on lobbyist campaign contributions is to limit undue influence or an appearance of “pay to play” once the candidate is in office, doesn’t it also apply to a candidate like Englander who will be on the City Council for at least another year and ostensibly voting on billboard-related legislation?

Some facts about Englander’s relationship with Clear Channel and his promotion of items on the outdoor advertising industry’s L.A. wish list have been detailed here. The county campaign finance reports show the extent to which industry lobbyists are supporting his campaign while he sits on the committee which will decide whether or not those items will get the committee’s blessing and move on to the full City Council.

One registered lobbying firm, Urban Solutions, donated the maximum $1,500 to the Englander campaign for county supervisor. One of the firm’s major clients is Clear Channel, which paid it $110,000 for lobbying services in the first six months of 2015, according to city Ethics Commission records.

Jimmy Blackman & Associates, another firm donating $1,500 to Englander, represents Lamar Advertising, which paid $27,000 for lobbying services and is also suing the city for the right to put up 45 new digital billboards. A partner in the lobbying firm, Sage Strategic Advisors, which represents Regency Outdoor, and a director in another firm, Ek & Ek, donated $1,500 each to the Englander campaign. And the wife of the head of Arnie Berghoff & Associates, one of the five lobbying firms representing Clear Channel, donated $1,500 to the campaign.

And as a point of information, another six registered lobbying firms and lobbyists that don’t have billboard company clients contributed money to Englander, although they would have been prohibited from doing so if he was campaigning for a city rather than county office.

Lobbyist campaign contributions have recently created controversy in a contest for a California state senate seat between two men currently working as senior aides to L.A. City Council members. Those donations, which again would be illegal if the men were running for city offices, were seen by many as direct attempts to gain improper influence on council members.

An attorney representing a community group that raised the issue of the donations was quoted in a Daily News article as calling for the city to “bar such donations to council members or their staffers who run for office while a donor has a stake in a City Hall outcome.”

In the case of Clear Channel and other donors to Englander’s county supervisor campaign, it’s obvious that they have a very significant stake in the way Englander votes on the PLUM committee and the City Council.   And after next year’s June 7, primary election, those companies that have already donated can do so again if Englander is one of the top two vote-getters and moves on to the Nov. 8 general election.

The City Ethics Commission is currently taking public comment on changes that should be made to the city ordinance regulating lobbying activity.  If you think restricting campaign contributions to sitting council members should be considered, you can let them know by clicking here.

Dennis Hathaway

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