L.A.’s Digital Billboards Go Dark. What’s Next?

CC Digital Lincoln & Washington

Does anyone out there believe that the final chapter of the city’s digital billboard saga has been written? That the collection of black billboard faces pasted into the visual landscape like minimalist art pieces is Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor’s farewell gesture to long-suffering residents of the city?

Even before Superior Court Judge Terry Green dropped the final hammer on all but two of the 101 digital billboards in the city, Clear Channel attorneys were on their way to another judge with a handful of legal theories supporting the notion that the companies were lured into signing the 2006 deal that allowed them–among other things–to convert a total of 840 conventional billboards to digital. Hapless victims, in other words, of what amounted to a City Hall scam.

What really happened, of course, was that Clear Channel gave former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo more than $400,000 in free–and illegal–billboard advertising in the 2001 election, and five years later Delgadillo sold a credulous and intellectually lazy City Council on the benefits of a sweetheart deal that has been worth untold millions to Clear Channel and CBS while plaguing residents with the neverending glare of brilliantly-lighted, rapidly changing ads for TV shows, fast food, cars and other products and services.

Now, Clear Channel wants to revisit that deal in the courtroom of the judge who originally stamped it with his imprimatur, even though his colleauge Judge Green called it “poison” and voided it “for all purposes” two years later.

So how can the company’s lawyers breathe life into what appears to be the cold corpse of the digital billboard permits? According to the motion filed with Superior Court Judge Ralph Dau, there are several possible ways to achieve this miracle.

One hinges upon the fact that the 2006 settlement agreement required Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor to each remove 49 of their conventional billboards. So perhaps the digital billboards operating until a few days ago could be considered as “relocations” of those billboards, since state law allows cities to enter into agreements with companies to relocate billboards that have to be moved, typically to make way for such things as street widening and other public improvement projects.

Another cites the city’s 2008 moratorium and 2009 permanent ban on digital billboard conversions, which is the reason that only 101 signs were actually put into operation, rather than the 840 allowed by the settlement agreement. Those actions exempted conversions that weren’t complete, but where permits had been issued and substantial work started. Under this theory, the 101 signs might actually be legal despite the fact the permits were issued pursuant to the voided agreement.

Yet another theory is based upon the fact that in August, 2008, a federal court judge ruled that the city ‘s ban on new off-site signs and supergraphic signs was unconstitutional. That ruling was eventually overturned on appeal, but Clear Channel’s lawyers seem ready to argue that digital conversion permits issued after the initial ruling but before it was overturned should be allowed to stand.

One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to perceive a “grasping at straws” quality in these arguments, or to detect an air of urgency and possibly even desparation. While Clear Channel has never divulged the exact amount of revenue the digital signs bring in, it is safe to say that company executives see the inert, black faces of the billboards as a bloody wound in the well-being of the company’s L.A. operations.

There’s urgency for another reason as well. At a hearing before Judge Green this week, the attorney for Summit Media, the company that brought the lawsuit that resulted in his “pull the plug” order, argued that the judge should go further and order the billboards entirely removed, right down to the ground. Which might strike some as Draconian, and others as just desserts for the company that knew exactly what it was doing when it signed on to a deal that denied people their right to be heard on an issue with serious effects on their quality of life and that of their neighborhoods and communities.

In any event, the judge told attorneys that he would hear arguments on such a motion, although he gave no indication how he might be inclined to rule.  No hearing date on that motion has been set.

With the digital billboards now dark, and lawyers pursuing new legal theories, what’s next for Clear Channel’s army of lobbyists and PR operatives, who have been working for months to convince politicians and the public of the benefits of digital billboards, including the possibility that the red ink staining the city budget could be staunched by a revenue-sharing agreement with the billboard companies.

It’s hard to see that this expensive, slickly-produced effort has moved the needle very far. Those who see digital billboards as amping up visual blight and being traffic safety hazards haven’t changed their minds, and the City Councilmembers who represent the areas where these signs are concentrated might jeopardize their jobs if they signed on to any future deal to turn them back on. A few politicians seem eager to do such a deal if it means revenue for city services, but others are wary of doing business with a company like Clear Channel that has repeatedly sued the city over billboard regulation and recently threatened to sue for well over $100 million if it was forced to turn off its digital signs.

And Lamar Advertising, the third large billboard player in the city, along with Clear Channel and CBS,just sued the city last month for the right to put up 17 new digital billboards. So there’s an understandable fear that any incautious moves by the city, either in the political or legal arena, could result in a flood of new digital billboards.

Given the city’s history with billboards, an abundance of caution is certainly warranted.

Dennis Hathaway

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