Monday, May 25, 2009

City Council and Billboards- Where's the Enforcement? A new Plan.

The L.A. City council has some activity on it's poorly handled billboard managment in the city where there are large numbers of illegal billboards, coming from the poor settlement terms during the handling of litigation with some billboard companies. Rocky Delgadillo was the City Attorney in charge- or supposed to be in charge- of the office and the "settlement" was one that gave in to what defendant billboard companies wanted. There were so many concession that the "favored treatment" for defendants made the city's enforcement against the other billboard companies that were not involvled in the settlement agreement unenforceable. The court said the agreement was flawed as it treated similar situations differently, favoring those covered in the settlement agreement and then the whole thing got out of hand.

The city has few inspectors for violations to be issued- and this could be a real source of revenue if the fines were more than wrist-slaps. The department head that manages it came to a city council meeting with an distinct attitude of indifference and lack of concern for getting the job done. This guy was quite guilty of failing to have any report ready as requested months earlier, and worse, had a projection of about a half a year longer to get one ready, making the usually ultra-composed Council President Eric Garcetti about as angry as I have ever seen him during a council meeting. Good for Eric. Now he sees how most of us feel about how the Council acts, or usually, fails to act

The council created a moratorium on new billboards but that's been another law ignored by the billboard companies quite boldly. Since they make loads of money for billboards, especially the digital and super-graphic ones, no matter what happens under the weak fine system in place, it's still more profitable to break the law than not to, at least as the city handles things now.

So the Council's now working on getting a handle on the problem with another ordinance and creation of "districts" to address control. I am wary of "districts", the designation of area for special treatment on a topic, as that usually means more costs to residents and businesses that didn't exist before. In other words, it's for "generating revenue" more than helping the people. So more is happening as the L.A. Times story on Saturday reports, "L.A. weighs changes in billboard law; The proposal, due for a vote Tuesday, would allow the City Council to create sign districts in up to 21 neighborhoods," By David Zahniser, May 24, 2009.,0,1939732.story I expect the billboard lobbyists to be very active in cornering Council members about their vote. The City Attorney Rock Delgadillo, received campaign contributions from billboard companies when he ran for the office successfully. Does the phrase, "What's wrong with this picture?" come to mind?

Delgadillo pledged that he could maintain independent judgment and avoid any influence from those donations. I don't believe that happened, or else the settlement would not have been so flawed. I hope the new City Attorney, Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich, will do better- and it would be hard to do worse in office than Delgadillo did. For every step forward that he took, it seems that we went bacwards two steps. Well, come July 1, that will change and Rocky will be gone.

The story on the billboards has captured quite a bit of controversy involved, and mentions some key observations,
Garcetti and his colleagues moved to overhaul the city's sign law last year after facing voter outrage over a series of lawsuit settlements approved by the council in 2005 and 2006. Those agreements, approved unanimously, delivered a broad array of concessions to four outdoor advertising companies that had challenged the city's 2002 billboard law.

The settlements gave three of the four -- CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor and Regency Outdoor -- permission to convert up to 900 billboards to digital formats, with illuminated images that change every few seconds. As new digital signs began going up, neighborhood groups in Silver Lake, Westwood and elsewhere lashed out at the council, saying it had granted the billboard industry carte blanche for hundreds of visually intrusive signs.
And you notice that the Council was involved in approving the deals, and the "unanimously" description is not unique- that's the rule, not the exception. They are like the 15 Musketeers, all for one and one for all. Some might think that the work generated is more like the "Mouseketeers" instead, but what do you expect? Look at how well they get paid. Getting $178,000 plus an estimated $100,000 in benefits can give one a pretty big head and make them think "royalty" more than "democracy."

Well, I don't like districts created since that's usually a ploy to squeeze out more money from us in a sneaky, shell-game fashion. Did I mention that on the whole, council is not to be trusted if you are thinking of things from the public's view. But the billboard companies are making out like bandits on the money scene, facing little enforcement and even less likely any significant penalties if actually caught.

The plan is to change all this, but the council leaned so far to favor billboard companies that the that the companies took advantage of them and are out of control. And don't think about First Amendment and Free Speech because this is all about "commercial speech," an entirely different animal that can be tamed with some better planning. So be forewarned that if you lean too far to favor someone, you might get yourself bent over, so to speak, as did the city with this mess.

More to be seen at Tuesday's Council Meeting.