No Transparency: L.A. City Council Committee and Billboard Legislation

Billboards like this one for the city's earthquake preparedness campaign went up prior to Englander's proposal for illegal billboard amnesty

Billboards like this one for the city’s earthquake preparedness campaign went up prior to Englander’s proposal to grant billboard amnesty.

At a meeting of the L.A. City Council’s PLUM committee on Dec. 16, 2014, Councilman Mitchell Englander told his fellow committee members that the city should grant “amnesty” to almost 1,000 billboards that either lacked permits or had been altered in violation of their permits. Failure to do this, he claimed, would embroil the city in time-consuming, expensive litigation.

To those who have followed the twists and turns of L.A.’s billboard battles, this proposal sounded suspiciously like an item from the wish lists of the city’s major billboard companies, in particular Clear Channel, which has not only sued the city in the past but made both explicit and implicit threats to sue over city actions it deems unfriendly to its interests.

Adding credence to the suspicion that Englander was doing Clear Channel’s bidding was the fact that the company donated billboard space to the city in 2013 for an earthquake preparedness campaign, and those public service ads not only prominently featured Englander’s face and name but were put up in his home territory of the San Fernando Valley.

And just last month, in a newsletter article about a Clear Channel donation of billboards to the LAPD for a hit-and-run education campaign, Englander used language taken verbatim from a Clear Channel press release that touted the use of digital billboards to catch criminals, find abducted children, and boost non-profit causes.

Which brings up another out-of-the blue proposal bearing Clear Channel fingerprints. At that same Dec. 16, 2014 PLUM committee meeting, Councilman Gil Cedillo brought up the idea of issuing conditional use permits for digital billboards outside designated sign districts, ostensibly including many of the 99 turned off by court order in 2013. Coincidentally or not, Cedillo had been the beneficiary of free billboard advertising throughout his district in his 2013 City Council campaign, and the three largest billboard companies in L.A. sponsored his annual Latin Jazz & Music Festival.Cedillo Jazz Festival

So the question—which may strike some people as rhetorical—is whether billboard company lobbyists brought these schemes—billboard amnesty and digital billboards by conditional use permit—to those councilmen who sit on the committee through which all sign legislation flows, or if those public servants independently arrived at the ideas.

Anyone who has spent much time in City Hall knows that lobbyists are a familiar sight at meetings of committees, commissions, and the City Council. It’s not uncommon to see lobbyists in conversation with elected or appointed city officials, and it’s obvious that more formal meetings take place with those officials in their offices.

One can guess at the scope of those lobbying activities by perusing the City Ethics Commission reports. For example, in 2014, when Englander and Cedillo brought those billboard proposals forward at the PLUM committee meeting, Clear Channel spent $772,000 lobbying city officials, and as a group outdoor advertising companies spent a total of $2.28 million.

Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of useful information to be gleaned from the Ethics Commission disclosures. For instance, in the last quarter of 2014 the firm of David Gershwin Consulting, one of five registered to represent Clear Channel, reported a payment of $91,500 from the company to lobby the City Council on “outdoor advertising issues.”

What, specifically, were those issues? Which City Council members did the firm’s lobbyists meet with, and when? What was the specific purpose of the meetings? Answers to those and other questions that could shine light on the city’s legislative process are nowhere to be found in the Ethics Commission lobbying reports.

This limited transparency isn’t universal, though. In San Francisco, firms lobbying city government are required to file monthly reports that include such data as the names of lobbyists and the public officials they contact, the date and place of those contacts and their desired outcome—to get support, for example, for a specific project or piece of legislation.

The city’s Municipal Lobbying Ordinance has been on the books since 1994, and the commission has recently embarked upon a review of its provisions. The commission staff has held two public meetings to gather input on possible changes, and is inviting public comment, which can be sent to ethics.policy@lacity.org.

If you think it would be useful to know if Councilmembers Englander and Cedillo met with lobbyists for Clear Channel or other billboard companies prior to making their proposals, and if you think the public should know who attended those meetings and what the lobbyists expected from the elected officials, send the Ethics Commission an email telling them so.

Dennis Hathaway

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