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5th Council District fight is enmeshed with billboard battle
To find ground zero of L.A's outdoor advertising wars, a good place to start is the Los Angeles City Council's 5th District -- or more specifically, a two-mile stretch of Westwood Boulevard.
Your first stop would be Westwood at Wilshire Boulevard, where supergraphics -- large vinyl images -- are stretched across opposite sides of a 12-story medical building. A second would be near Westwood and National Boulevard, where a six-story office building advertises Johnnie Walker whiskey on one side and TV counselor Dr. Phil on another.
Then there are four other stops on Westwood Boulevard: three intersections with digital billboards and a fourth with yet another supergraphic, all installed in the last two years.
With so many signs going up so quickly, the six candidates running for Jack Weiss' seat on the council are promising to crack down on outdoor advertising, pushing for steeper fines and more rigorous enforcement. Some have taken a harder line, saying there should be no new billboards -- digital or otherwise -- anywhere in the district.
"We need to make sure we get this right this time," said entertainment attorney Robert Schwartz, one of the six candidates in the March 3 election. "The situation has gone on for too long and has certainly gotten way out of control."
Billboard foes contend that the affluent 5th District, which takes in such well-to-do neighborhoods as Bel-Air, Cheviot Hills and Encino,is a tempting target for sign companies seeking new, lucrative advertising space. So far, at least 39 billboards in the district have been converted to digital formats under the terms of a 2006 legal settlement approved by the council.
The district also has become a magnet for new supergraphics, which have gone up over the last three months on the sides of buildings on Wilshire, Santa Monica and Westwood boulevards. And advertising companies have submitted 385 requests to install bus kiosks and other types of street furniture, which display smaller ads.
The six candidates have responded by unveiling an array of proposals, most of them punitive.
Former state Assemblyman Paul Koretz called for billboard companies to be fined $10,000 per day when they have an unpermitted sign -- four times the current amount.
Neighborhood council member David T. Vahedi said he would beef up the enforcement division of the Department of Building and Safety, providing more resources to look for unpermitted signs.
And businesswoman Robyn Ritter Simon said fines should be imposed on illegal billboards on the day they are found -- not after weeks of warnings.
"Money is a great motivator, and I don't care how many resources the companies that are posting these signs have," said Ritter Simon, who once ran the Century City Chamber of Commerce. "If you start fining them on a daily basis, it will begin to take effect."
The candidates have floated their proposals as billboard companies are arguing that the public is not particularly troubled by digital signs. One industry group polled 401 residents across Los Angeles County and found that among those who had seen a digital billboard, 47% found them "attractive."
"There's not this groundswell of opposition that some would have you believe is there," Jeff Golimowski, spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America, said last week.
One billboard opponent said public opposition depends on the number of digital signs in a particular neighborhood. Because the greatest concentration of electronic billboards is on the Westside, dislike for them is also strong there, said Dennis Hathaway, spokesman for the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.
Still, candidate Adeena Bleich said anti-billboard sentiment is also strong in the 5th District because its residents see far fewer signs in neighboring cities.
"We're between Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, neither of which allow billboards at all. So you see the visual difference," said Bleich, who spent four years as an aide to Councilman Jack Weiss, the district's departing representative.
So far, the most accommodating position among the six candidates has come from lawyer and businessman Ron Galperin, who would not rule out the possibility of new billboards in the district. Galperin, a resident of Encino, said he does not believe in taking "absolutist positions."
"I wouldn't say never. But I am very circumspect, and I think they should be very limited," he said. "Also, there may be opportunities to say that we might let a new one come into being if we're getting rid of two others that are a real nuisance."
Galperin said the city's handling of billboards has undermined respect for its laws. To regain that respect, Galperin said, the city should force any company caught with an illegal billboard to forfeit all the revenue it obtained from their unpermitted sign.
Bleich and Vahedi said they would consider deploying parking enforcement officers to inform building inspectors when they see a new billboard. Schwartz and Koretz talked up the notion of a citizens' inventory, to determine how many unpermitted signs exist in the district.
Bleich pointed out that she was endorsed by former Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who pushed for the city's 2002 billboard ban -- a law that has faced several legal challenges. Koretz, in turn, said he worked for Miscikowski's onetime boss, former Councilman Marvin Braude, who fought outdoor advertising 20 years ago.
Vahedi said Los Angeles may need to take a drastic step if it wants to address its sign problem, by refusing to allow any more exceptions to its billboard rules. By proposing new outdoor sign districts in Koreatown and downtown Los Angeles, the city has made its sign rules vulnerable to legal challenges.
"We really are sending some strange mixed messages," he said.