To settle a lawsuit, the city of Los Angeles entered into a billboard deal in 2006 that was so improper that it would have been funny were it not for the damage it did to neighborhoods, the city’s pocketbook and local government’s reputation for competence.
The agreement kept in place a ban on new billboards but allowed two companies to convert hundreds of conventional signs into huge outdoor electronic screens that change messages every few seconds and glare into adjacent neighborhoods. The deal rewrote zoning and permit rules for the two companies, CBS Outdoor (then known as Viacom) and Clear Channel. Another lawsuit followed, filed not by blinded drivers or annoyed neighbors but by a third company that complained it didn’t get a chance to participate in the giveaway of lucrative digital billboard rights.
The court ruled in favor of that third company, Summit Media, and digital conversion was suspended for more than 600 signs. Today, as oral arguments in the appeal proceed, CBS and Clear Channel are trying to forestall any ruling that could force them to turn off their screens, take them down and start over again through a rational permit process.
The defendants’ desire to prevent the appeal from going forward is understandable: Digital billboards produce many times the revenue that conventional signs do, and they’d rather not turn any off. What’s less understandable is why so many members of the City Council are so anxious to do the companies’ bidding. Members Ed Reyes and Paul Krekorian introduced a motion that they now acknowledge was drafted by the companies and their lobbyists, and the council happily adopted it. The motion instructs the city’s Planning Department to draft new laws as part of a settlement. The result would likely be yet another agreement that allows CBS and Clear Channel to keep or expand their inventory of digital billboards in exchange for some kind of consolation prize for the city, such as a cash payment.
Let’s rephrase. We wish it were less understandable why the City Council would so readily do the companies’ bidding, but it’s actually quite plain: Council members respond to power and money, and billboard firms and their construction union allies have it. Local residents don’t.
Council members Paul Koretz, Tom LaBonge and Eric Garcetti said no to the ridiculous and obvious ploy. Their colleagues should do likewise and, although belatedly, grow some spines and let the appeals court do its work. Only after the court has ruled and the city has a better grasp of its legal standing should it consider sign laws and whether they are in the best interests of the city and its residents, and not just the best interests of billboard companies.