“I got a call this morning from one of my spies,” Dennis Hathaway was telling me Monday at his dining room table in Venice. “Looks like there’s a digital conversion up near the airport.”
Hathaway has eyeballs all over Los Angeles, an army of ticked off citizens doing a job city officials have failed to do. When members of his volunteer crew spot standard billboards going digital, or signs that look out of compliance with city code, they call Hathaway to report them.
A volunteer muckraker himself, Hathaway plows through haphazard, ill-kept records at City Hall, studies the vast library of advertising industry lawsuits in Los Angeles and reports his findings at www.banbillboardblight.org.
His wife, artist and housing activist Laura Silagi, came into the kitchen, and I asked how much time Hathaway -- a retired construction manager -- spends on his obsession.
“Twelve hours a day,” she said without hesitation.
It began a few years ago, said Hathaway, 65. His wife took their 4-year-old grandson for a walk, and at the corner of Palms and Lincoln boulevards, she noticed three mini billboards on the side of a fabric store, advertising movies.
She told Hathaway, who was under the impression that the city had banned off-site advertising, meaning that only a sign for the fabric store itself would have been legal there. Hathaway, who was active in the Venice Neighborhood Council, consulted a planner who told him the signs were no doubt illegal.
Just like that, a fire was lit.
Hathaway, who had been an Iowa newspaper reporter in his 20s, was an old hand at digging for information. A fiction writer in his free time and winner of the 1992 Flannery O’Connor Award for short stories, he switched from writing to research. That led him to the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, a nonprofit band of fed-up Angelenos, and he now heads the group and runs the website.
It didn’t take long for him to understand that L.A.'s meager efforts to control billboard proliferation had been comically inept, with the outdoor advertising industry using muscle, campaign donations and lawsuits to run circles around hapless city officials.
The more he learned about out-of-compliance billboards -- including many erected without permits at all -- the more he took notice of visual blight in Los Angeles, including the super-graphics draped around buildings. He counted 84 billboards on Lincoln Boulevard alone between the airport and the city’s border with Santa Monica, which bans billboards.
With utter amazement, Hathaway studied the sweetheart 2006 deal in which City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo agreed to a lawsuit settlement that must have had the billboard bosses throwing back champagne. The same Rocky who arguably owed his job to support from the outdoor advertising industry had handed them the right to convert 840 standard billboards to megawatt digital behemoths.
And guess who signed off on the deal with a unanimous endorsement?
The entire City Council, and mummified Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, too.
“How could they have done this?” Hathaway asks. “It was a total giveaway, especially since the city had prevailed on the last lawsuit” filed by the industry. “I can’t use any better word for it than ‘pathetic’ . . . There are 4,000 illegal billboards, and they can’t seem to do anything about it. What does that say about a city? Something’s really broken.”
Something’s broken, all right, but not the long and proud L.A. political tradition of shrinking from duty. With few exceptions, politicians rarely take each other on publicly for fear of payback down the road, and they’re especially derelict in challenging the businesses and unions that bankroll their campaigns.
Delgadillo’s fingerprints should have raised suspicions among council members. But our heroes rubber-stamped the deal for the billboard industry, which never spares the cash at campaign time.
If council members are now beginning to step up, it’s only because Hathaway is on their backs and citizens are demanding to know why neighborhoods are suddenly sprouting giant flashing billboards that throw streams of light at drivers and into living rooms.
“As a rookie, I followed the lead on what was presented to us in that closed session,” 11th District Councilman Bill Rosendahl says of his “yes” vote on the 2006 settlement.
But Rosendahl, who said he was literally blinded recently by the brilliant glow of a Pico Boulevard digital billboard, has seen the light in more ways than one. He was the only councilman to vote no in September on a proposal to allow galactically large digital and video ads at the Convention Center, where they will conveniently distract drivers on two freeways.
Last month, Rosendahl and Hathaway teamed up with 30 volunteers to canvas the 11th District and count billboards (563 total, including 17 digital, and 34 with no ownership identification, a violation of the city sign ordinance). Their data are being turned over to the city Department of Building and Safety, which will send inspectors to investigate code violations.
Bravo, but why are volunteers doing the work their tax dollars should pay for?
Because this is L.A.
The city plans to do its own inspection of roughly 10,000 billboards citywide, but that’s estimated to take -- I kid you not -- nearly three years.
If we’re lucky.
We are nearly three years and $12 million into a debate over construction of a $42-million elephant pen at the zoo, and now construction may be halted because experts think the space is too small. Such is life around here.
As Hathaway and I drove out to check on the digital conversion called in by his spy, we marveled at the mind-numbing forests of sales pitches on Lincoln, Pico, Olympic and elsewhere. He insisted, though, that he is not anti-billboard.
He simply wants all illegal signs to draw fines or be removed, he wants a moratorium on new billboards, and he wants the city to challenge digital conversions and quit caving in on “sign district” exemptions like the one proposed for Koreatown.
Sounds reasonable enough. But Hathaway isn’t merely asking public officials to do their jobs. He’s asking citizens if they care to stand against the devaluation of distinctive public spaces with generic pitches for beer, movies, gentlemen’s clubs and everything else that blocks the natural view of something better.