Turn Them Off? Let Them Stay? No Decision by PLUM Committee On Digital Billboards

l to r; Councilman Dennis Zine, CBS Outdoor vice-president Ryan Brooks, Garcetti aide Katherine Hennigan

l to r; Councilman Dennis Zine, CBS Outdoor vice-president Ryan Brooks, Garcetti aide Katherine Hennigan

What is the city of L.A. going to do about the 101 digital billboards erected pursuant to an agreement a Superior Court judge has found to be unlawful?   The City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee took up the question this week, but decided to delay action on a motion to instruct the Department of Building and Safety to stop issuing any new digital billboard permits and evaluate whether permits for the existing signs should be revoked.

This non-action followed testimony from billboard company and business representatives who warned of dire consequences if the permits were revoked, and community group representatives and individuals who complained of the negative affects of the billboards and the fact that they were allowed to go up without any public notice, hearings, or review of compliance with local zoning regulations.

The motion before the committee, submitted by City Council President Eric Garcetti, called upon the Department of Building and Safety to “ensure compliance” with the court decision, which found that a 2006 lawsuit settlement between the city and two billboard companies illegally exempted digital billboards from a number of zoning regulations and requirements for public review and hearing.  That settlement, itself a product of closed-door meetings and approval without any public debate, gave those companies–Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor— the right to convert 840 of their conventional billboards to digital.

Committee member Jose Huizar argued  that action on the motion should be continued until after the City Attorney’s office weighed in on the issue.   The other members, Chairman Ed Reyes and Dennis Zine, agreed with the delay even though City Attorney’s representative Jane Usher said that the office had no objection to the motion and its immediate adoption.

There was no discussion of when—or if—the motion will come back to the committee.  However, the City Council is expected to meet soon in closed session with the City Attorney’s office for a briefing on the legal ramifications of the judge’s ruling.   And some council members clearly want to find a “middle-ground” solution that neither requires the removal of the digital signs, nor allows them to continue operating as they have in the past.

Employees of Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor, and representatives of such business groups as the L.A. Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, testified that revoking the digital billboard permits would broadcast a message to businesses here and elsewhere that  Los Angeles cannot be counted on to honor its agreements.  (Editor’s note:  An earlier version of this post included the Central City Association as one of the above business groups, but in fact that organization did not urge support of the lawsuit settlement)

The billboard companies, they argued, had every right to rely on the lawsuit settlement unanimously approved by the City Council and signed into law by the Mayor, and being penalized because of a judge’s decision three years later would be grossly unfair and cast a chill on the city’s relations with businesses here as well as those thinking of locating here.

Several speakers also made reference to the possibility of future lawsuits, and the millions in potential damages that could accrue if the city took action against the billboards. And Ryan Brooks, of CBS Outdoor, accused the small billboard company that filed the lawsuit that resulted in overturning the agreement of itself having put up illegal supergraphic signs.

Representatives of homeowners associations, community groups, and individuals from such areas as Hollywood,  Los Feliz, West L.A., Westwood, Venice, and Studio City testified about light pollution, the potential for driver distraction and traffic accidents, and excessive energy use.  Speakers also stressed the central theme of the judge’s ruling, that cities cannot make lawsuit settlements that deny citizens their right to a voice in zoning and land-use decisions in their communities.  Several speakers addressed the fact that while the judge threw out the settlement agreement, he  declined to void the existing digital permits, saying that citizens could appeal those permits one-by-one if they wished.  If the city took such a course, several persons said, it would place a huge burden in terms of time and expense on members of the public who were illegally denied their rights, and probably mean that most of the permits would never be challenged at all.

Also speaking in support of Garcetti’s motion were staff members from the offices of Council members Bill Rosendahl, Paul Koretz and Garcetti, whose deputy, Katherine Hennigan, said that the council president’s office routinely hears from “large numbers of residents” who want the digital billboards returned to their former state.

Zine was the only committee member to comment on the public testimony and the substance of the Garcetti motion.  After expressing sympathy with the idea that council action against the digital billboards could be viewed as business-unfriendly and a reneging on contractual agreements, he addressed the central issue in the judge’s ruling, the abrogation of public process by the lawsuit settlement.

“What troubles me most,” he 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.”

Which suggests an idea:  How about asking all council members to take an oath to be credible with the public, to not deceive the public, to do nothing that destroys democracy and the foundation of this government?

Dennis Hathaway

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