The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to draft new regulations for digital billboards, despite protests from critics who accused lawmakers of trying to circumvent a pending court decision that could eliminate dozens of those signs.
On an 11-3 vote, council members instructed the city's planning and policy advisors to come back within 30 days with a proposed ordinance that would give the city a share of digital billboard revenue and avert "potential legal disputes" surrounding the brightly lit signs.
The action was backed by digital sign companies, business groups and an array of construction labor unions whose representatives said outdoor advertising is critical to the city's economy. "The city has a moral obligation to follow through with this," said Kevin Norton, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 11.
Neighborhood leaders contend that council members are seeking to shield about 100 digital billboards in Westwood, Venice and elsewhere from a potentially adverse court ruling later this year. Councilmen Ed Reyes and Paul Krekorian, who initiated the latest digital billboard discussion, argued last week that it was "critical" for the council to come up with new legislation before an appeals court decides the matter.
Hollywood resident Dan Silver described the city effort to tap digital billboard cash as "the governmental equivalent of human trafficking." "Instead of getting your own fiscal house in order ... you would prostitute the public spaces — the streets, the sidewalks, the views, the very beauty and character of this city — to the sign companies," he told council members.
Three council members — Paul Koretz, Tom LaBonge and Eric Garcetti — voted against new sign talks. But Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents the northeast San Fernando Valley, argued that his constituents have been held hostage by a vocal minority of billboard foes. "I have a community in Panorama City that wants digital billboards," he said.
In 2006, the council approved a legal settlement that allowed two companies, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, to convert up to 840 billboards to digital formats. Sign company Summit Media sued, calling the pact a sweetheart deal worth $100 million per year.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge sided with Summit in 2009, striking down the settlement and blocking CBS and Clear Channel from installing 700 digital signs. The court left it to council members to sort out how to deal with roughly 100 electronic billboards that had already been installed.
Since then, Clear Channel has been lobbying city officials behind the scenes to protect the existing signs, saying that such a move would render decisions in the Summit case "moot." That case is on appeal, with oral arguments expected this month.
Clear Channel attorney Sara Lee Keller warned in a July letter to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich that an adverse ruling by the Court of Appeal could spark new lawsuits over those 100 existing signs, putting a "heavy burden on city resources." But William Carter, chief deputy to Trutanich, said the city faces no liability if the court orders the existing digital billboards removed
The original deal with CBS and Clear Channel protected the city from paying any damages if a third party successfully challenged it, Carter said.
Krekorian said he hopes to find a way to reduce the number of digital billboards and protect the city from future lawsuits — but also signaled that he is willing to walk away from a bad proposal.
"If the result of these discussions is a proposal that is not in the best long-term interest of the city, then I, for one, will not support it and I am confident my colleagues will not support it," he said.