A billboard company challenging Los Angeles' restrictions on digital signs has disclosed plans to donate tens of thousands of dollars in advertising to help Councilman Jose Huizar and five other candidates, all but one of them incumbents, in the March 3 election.
Lamar Advertising Co. of Baton Rouge, La., which is suing to install at least 45 digital billboards across the city, will put much of its campaign money behind Huizar, who heads the council committee drafting new sign regulations, according to paperwork filed with the city Ethics Commission. The firm already has installed 100 pro-Huizar billboards at a cost of $26,500, all of them in the councilman's downtown-to-Eagle Rock district, said Ray Baker, Lamar's vice president and general manager.
Baker said in an e-mail that Lamar favors 1st Amendment protections and "a pro-business environment." He declined to comment more specifically on his company's reasons for backing the six candidates, including Council President Herb Wesson, Councilwoman Nury Martinez and Councilman Paul Krekorian.
"The decision of why we support or do not support a particular candidate is not up for discussion," Baker said in the email to The Times.
City law bars campaign contributors from giving council candidates more than $700 during an election cycle. But there are no limits on expenditures such as those being made by Lamar, as long as they are made independently from a candidate's campaign.
Former county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is running against Huizar, questioned whether the councilman can be impartial on billboard issues when he is receiving significant help from the sign industry. She opposes Lamar's legal demand for a digital sign on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Glassell Park, just outside Huizar's district.
"This speaks to what we're finding across the board — that [Huizar] is a man who doesn't incorporate the needs of the community and instead is working on the issues of the special interests," Molina said.
Huizar declined an interview request. In an e-mail sent by his campaign, the councilman said he did not want to "speak out of turn" on pending litigation — including Lamar's legal demands on Eagle Rock Boulevard. But he dismissed Molina's criticism, saying the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters had endorsed him for his work "fighting blight and protecting communities."
"If others were doing more, they would've received those endorsements," he said.
In all, Baker said Lamar intends to provide nearly $59,000 in advertising for its candidates over the next six weeks. The company has put up 20 billboards apiece for the reelection campaigns of Martinez, Krekorian and Wesson, plus another 20 for Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who is seeking to replace termed-out Councilman Bernard C. Parks. Eight signs are going up in support of Councilman Mitchell Englander, who sits with Huizar on the panel that is considering where and how new digital signs should be allowed.
Huizar and Englander, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, also are weighing a proposal to legalize hundreds of billboards that have no record of valid city building permits. A city survey found that 480 Lamar billboards lacked such permits. Englander and Huizar have said state law prevents the city from punishing companies whose signs lacking permits have escaped city enforcement action for the last five years.
In court, Lamar is seeking the right to install electronic billboards in Silver Lake, Sherman Oaks and roughly two dozen other neighborhoods. A judge has sided with the company and thrown out the city's sign law. But the decision is on hold while the city appeals the ruling, officials said.
The law being challenged by Lamar bans digital billboards in most of the city but allows them in special sign districts. Billboard foes say if Lamar's legal strategy prevails, it could pave the way for hundreds of new digital signs.
Former Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, who is challenging Martinez in the San Fernando Valley, said electronic billboards don't belong in Martinez's 6th District, which covers all or part of Van Nuys, Lake Balboa, Panorama City and Arleta. Brightly flashing signs are more appropriate in high-density neighborhoods with major nightlife attractions, such as the area around downtown's L.A. Live sports and entertainment complex, she said.
"We're built differently from downtown L.A.," Montañez said. "We're mostly residential. Van Nuys Boulevard, Ventura Boulevard — they're not these huge entertainment districts."
Martinez said she has not discussed sign issues with Lamar executives. But she said she remains open to the idea of electronic billboards on Van Nuys Boulevard or near Panorama City's shopping center, as long as residential neighborhoods aren't harmed.
Electronic billboards "should be considered," Martinez said, if they are likely to bring businesses or jobs, to the community.
Lamar donated $5,000 worth of advertising promoting Martinez in the May 2013 primary election. After Martinez finished second, the company switched and spent $5,000 to help Montañez in the July 2013 runoff, according to city records. This year, Lamar will put up$7,600 worth of billboards supporting Martinez.
Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.