Advertising company Lamar sued the city of Los Angeles two months ago, demanding the right to install new digital billboards in such neighborhoods as Sherman Oaks, Silver Lake, Glassell Park and the Fairfax district.
Lamar’s involvement in city politics did not stop there. Since it filed that lawsuit, the company has financed scores of billboards for candidates in the May 21 election — 100 for mayoral hopeful Wendy Greuel, 100 for city controller candidate Dennis Zine and 20 apiece for City Council candidates Curren Price, Nury Martinez and Gil Cedillo.
Not since 2001, when billboard companies backed city attorney candidate Rocky Delgadillo, have advertising companies played such a significant role in a city election — or had so much at stake. Court rulings in recent months have caused dozens of electronic signs to go dark. Billboard companies want new rulings allowing more of them, over objections from neighborhood groups who view them as an eyesore.
Lamar, whose comparatively small signs are in many of the city’s working-class neighborhoods, has donated $70,000 worth of signs to city candidates since the year began. CBS Outdoor, which is seeking financial damages from the city over the loss of its digital signs, has spent $13,200 on signs for Cedillo and a combined $13,500 for Price and City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who won in the March primary election, according to city records.
Campaign group Working Californians has spent at least $215,000 on billboards promoting Greuel, Cedillo, Price and council candidate John Choi, who is running in an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district. That group is funded heavily by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a major advocate for new digital signs.
The spending “makes me really, really nervous,” said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “It’s obvious to me that [sign advocates] are counting on getting something they want after the election. They lost big time in the courts and now they’re going all out.”
The billboard buys are especially concentrated in and around Council District 1, where at least 60 signs promoting Cedillo dot such communities as Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Westlake. A stretch of trendy York Boulevard in Highland Park has 10 signs promoting Cedillo.
Lamar Vice President Ray Baker would not say how his company chose its candidates. But CBS Outdoor Vice President Ryan Brooks heaped praise on Cedillo, saying the former state lawmaker has “always been pro-business.” CBS Outdoor wants new rules allowing new electronic billboards to go up in exchange for the removal of other static signs.
“Digital signs have to be in … appropriately zoned places throughout the entire city, not just one district,” Brooks said.
Council candidate Jose Gardea, who is running against Cedillo, said digital signs are not a good fit for the 1st District and criticized Lamar’s effort to install a digital sign on Eagle Rock Boulevard.
“I don’t see any scenario where we would [want] digitals in CD1,” Gardea added.
Cedillo’s campaign would not say whether he would allow digital signs in the district. But Cedillo issued a statement saying that Lamar’s spending is no indication that it will get special treatment.
“If elected, these types of issues will go through the same scrutiny as any other project,” he said.
The issue of digital billboards came to the forefront last year, when a three-judge panel ruled that permits for nearly 100 electronic signs owned by CBS and Clear Channel Outdoor must be revoked. The signs were part of a deal backed in 2006 by Greuel and her mayoral opponent, City Councilman Eric Garcetti, that was struck down as illegal.
In the wake of that ruling, Clear Channel Outdoor filed a legal claim with the city saying the loss of digital billboards would deprive it of more than $100 million per year. It also formed Sign Up L.A., a coalition of labor unions, businesses and nonprofit groups advocating for electronic signs.
Clear Channel consultant Fiona Hutton has been raising money for Greuel, the city controller, in recent months, co-hosting two events for her campaign. Greuel campaign spokeswoman Shannon Murphy noted that Hutton has other clients besides Clear Channel and said Greuel wants new sign rules that protect residential neighborhoods.
“Ultimately, she doesn’t believe we should have digital billboards in communities that oppose them,” Murphy said.
Garcetti voiced essentially the same view. “I haven’t heard a mad rush from any community saying ‘I want a digital billboard,’” he said.
The independent Lots of People Who Support Eric Garcetti campaign has purchased $22,100 in billboards promoting Garcetti’s candidacy, records show. The group’s spokesman said he knows of no billboard companies that have contributed to the group.
Billboards have gone up for both candidates in the council race to replace Garcetti, which pits Choi against former Garcetti deputy Mitch O’Farrell. In that district, two neighborhood volunteers purchased a billboard for O’Farrell in Echo Park, while Working Californians has signs promoting Choi above Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.
Also helping Choi is Myung-Soo Seok, a campaign volunteer who is also a lobbyist for Regency Outdoor. That company put the city on notice this year that it may sue over its inability to obtain permits for new digital billboards.
Choi described Seok as a friend and advisor and said his lobbying clients will not influence policy decisions. Seok appeared as a press contact for Choi on one of his campaign news releases this year.
Choi said he’s not prepared to provide a “blanket policy” on where new digital signs should go but suggested they might work in Hollywood. “My No. 1 concern … is going to be residential impact and public safety impact,” he said.
O’Farrell opposes any new electronic signs in the district, calling them a public safety issue. “I think they’re a blight and they’re distracting” for drivers, he said.
O’Farrell promised to fight Lamar’s demand for a digital billboard at Glendale Boulevard and Fletcher Drive in Silver Lake. Choi said he would be hesitant to back that proposal but also does not want to “make any pronounced positions on intersections for billboards right now.”