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California

Company donates free billboards to Englander as L.A. weighs new sign regulations

Mitchell Englander

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander listens as representatives of Southern California Gas Co. speak during a City Council meeting in December 2015.

(Christina House / For The Times)

A Louisiana advertising company is giving a political boost to Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, providing free space on 50 billboards to promote his bid for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

Baton Rouge-based Lamar Advertising Co., which has been seeking to convert dozens of billboards to digital formats, has allocated $17,000 for pro-Englander signs in the final weeks before the June 7 election, said Ray Baker, the company’s vice president and general manager.

Englander sits on the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which is trying to decide how and where to allow new digital billboards. The five-member panel is also weighing whether to grant permanent legal status — some say amnesty — to hundreds of nondigital signs owned by Lamar and other companies that lack the proper permits at City Hall.

With a vote on new billboard regulations expected later this year, the Lamar contribution has drawn complaints from residents who see digital billboards as a safety hazard and a form of blight.

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“It’s a free gift to Mitch Englander, and any action he takes [on billboards] is now going to be tainted by that gift,” said Venice resident Patrick Frank, who testified at City Hall last month on the sign proposals.

It’s a free gift to Mitch Englander, and any action he takes [on billboards] is now going to be tainted by that gift.
Patrick Frank, Venice resident

Englander, who is in an eight-way race to replace departing Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, said he had no control over Lamar’s decision to put up the signs, many of which are in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. The company’s donation is an “independent expenditure” — the kind that, by law, cannot be made in coordination with a candidate or the candidate’s campaign.

Englander said it’s “ridiculous” to think his vote would be influenced by such an expenditure.

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“The billboard industry wants amnesty on everything, and I don’t support that,” he said.

Sign industry representatives have long argued that the city cannot assume that billboards that do not have permits are illegal. City agencies did a poor job of keeping track of those records, they say, and cannot guarantee the documents weren’t lost.

Baker said Lamar picked Englander because of his support for public safety and his “pro-business” views. “We feel that we know him better than any of the other candidates and what he stands for,” he said in an email.

Lamar has been looking to replace its 4,000 comparatively small billboards — many of them in residential areas — with larger, and in some cases digital, signs that would go up in commercial and industrial areas. The company sued the city three years ago, demanding the right to put up 45 digital billboards, but lost at the appellate court level. Lamar is weighing its legal options, Baker said.

As the lawsuit made its way through the court system, Lamar used 100 of its billboards to promote the 2015 reelection campaign of Councilman Jose Huizar, who heads the council’s planning committee. That same year, the company put up 88 signs for five other candidates, including eight for Englander.

Lamar isn’t the only player in the sign industry to put its weight behind Englander. Clear Channel Outdoor recently contributed $10,000 to an independent expenditure committee set up to help Englander’s county campaign. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11, which favors fewer restrictions on digital billboards, also spent money on Englander’s behalf, giving the committee $50,000.

Meanwhile, Englander directly collected at least $5,000 for his campaign from outdoor advertising firms, their executives and a billboard trade group, according to county campaign records.

Englander is running in a district that stretches from Canoga Park on the west to La Verne on the east, taking in such disparate communities as Pasadena, Santa Clarita, Palmdale, San Marino and Gorman. If no one gets a majority in next month’s contest, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held Nov. 8.

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Englander and his colleagues are set to meet next month to review a trio of proposals for regulating new signs. Part of their deliberations will focus on the types of trade-offs that would be imposed on companies that want to erect new electronic signs.

The Planning Commission, made up of appointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti, recommended that advertising companies be required to take down 10 square feet of existing billboard space for every square foot of new digital signage that is approved. Another proposal, prepared for council members, would be considerably less restrictive, requiring the removal of up to 2 square feet of existing billboard space for every square foot of new digital signage permitted by the city.

Also up for discussion is the question of where digital signs should be allowed. All three proposals call for new digital billboards to be limited to special “sign districts” — bustling commercial areas such as downtown, Koreatown and Hollywood or regional attractions such as Los Angeles International Airport and Dodger Stadium.

Two of Englander’s colleagues have questioned that strategy, saying some council members don’t represent areas that would be eligible for sign districts. Without a sign district, a council member would be unable to strike a deal to remove a large number of existing signs, they said.

Englander said he has not decided which strategy he prefers. But he insisted that any campaign spending by billboard interests would have “zero” effect on his vote.

That argument did not persuade Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian, who is also running for Antonovich’s seat. Najarian predicted voters who learn about Lamar’s advertising campaign will be troubled by it.

“It’s just sending a message out that he’s going to be partial to these companies,” he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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Twitter: @davidzahniser

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