Seven Years Later, Illegal Billboards Come Down

Left, illegal billboard on plumbers union property; right, after billboard removal

Left, illegal billboard on plumbers union property; right, after billboard removal

Seven years ago, just a few days before Christmas, a construction crew pulled up to a lot on the north side of the 110 freeway in downtown L.A. and proceeded to erect a 60 ft. high, double sided billboard. Less than 50 ft. from the freeway in the Staples Center/L.A. Live area, its two 700 sq. ft. faces would broadcast ads for such products as fast food, computers, and financial services to nearly 300,000 motorists every day.

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who brokered the backroom deal two years earlier to allow Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor to convert hundreds of their billboards to digital, was certainly no hero to anti-billboard activists. But on the day after Christmas he announced the filing of criminal charges against the owner of the construction company that put up that billboard and two others along the freeway in the same vicinity. Criminal charges were also filed against all three property owners.

Everyone knows the wheels of justice often turn slowly, and despite the absence of any credible defense against a brazen defiance of city laws, those three billboards displayed a variety of ads to motorists for more than seven years. Just this month construction crews again appeared, this time to yank them from the ground and cart them away.

Why so long? Suffice to say that lawsuits were filed, and with them a variety of motions and other tactics designed, it seems, to postpone the inevitable as opposed to resolving serious legal questions.

But all’s well that ends well. Or so it would seem, if one overlooks another fundamental question, which is: How much money did those property owners and the company that put up the billboards make by displaying ads for seven years to motorists on one of the most heavily-traveled sections of freeway in the city?

In other words, what about those ill-gotten gains? One of the property owners was Local 78 of the Plumbers Union. How much did they pocket from what was, essentially, a criminal enterprise? And why shouldn’t they be forced to disgorge those tainted funds?

That question is particularly relevant to that union, because it had been lobbying for city permission to put up a new digital billboard on that property. Just months before the illegal billboard appeared, City Councilman Ed Reyes had introduced a City Council motion to allow an exception to the sign code provision that prohibited any new billboards.

That motion died in committee, ostensibly because such an exception for a single billboard could never be justified on legal grounds. Yet the plumbers union leaders, who certainly had full knowledge of this, allowed a billboard company renegade to come along and put up the billboard without so much as a shred of official approval.

In short, we can applaud the City Attorneys—first Delgadillo, then Carmen Trutanich, now Mike Feuer—who pursued the ultimate removal of those billboards. We can also ask that people who profited from blatant nose-thumbing at city laws be made to pay.

If you agree, we suggest sending an email to Mike Feuer (mike.feuer@lacity.org).  Something like, “Good work, but now go after those ill-gotten gains.”  And be sure to send a copy of that message to your City Councilperson, because some political pressure always helps.

Dennis Hathaway

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