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Billboard Amnesty: Who’s Giving the City Council Legal Advice?

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BILLBOARD WATCH-At a Dec. 16 meeting of the L.A. City Council’s PLUM committee, Councilman Mitchell Englander proposed that some 1,000 billboards that either lack permits or have been altered in violation of their permits be legalized. 

This “amnesty” as Englander called it is necessary because any attempt to enforce the law against Clear Channel and other sign companies would land the city in court for years to come. Englander said “there’s no question in my mind” that the city would face litigation over the issue and that such litigation would “tie up incredibly valuable resources.” 

It’s worth noting that Englander, who represents a west San Fernando Valley district that has by far the fewest number of billboards in the city, is not an attorney. Which leads to the question: Were his statements just a layperson’s conjecture, based on recent history replete with lawsuits challenging the city’s sign regulations, or was his opinion informed by discussions with the city’ legal counsel? 

He didn’t say. And neither he nor his fellow PLUM committee members, Gilbert Cedillo and chairman Jose Huizar, asked the deputy City Attorney present at the meeting for any input on legal issues regarding the proposed billboard amnesty. His pronouncements stood as statements of fact, without challenge or comment. 

Does City Attorney Mike Feuer agree with Englander? Has he advised city officials against taking any action against unpermitted and out-of-compliance billboards? 

When asked at a meeting with some community members last year if he had told the city’s Department of Building and Safety to classify these billboards as “presumed lawful” under an obscure state law, Feuer refused to say if he had even spoken about the matter with anyone in that department. 

According to Feuer, any discussions with other city officials were subject to attorney-client privilege and could not be publicly disclosed. 

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One might reasonably ask how the public can evaluate a sweeping proposal like Englander’s billboard amnesty without being privy to the opinion of the city’s top legal officer. One might also consider this question: If building department employees and other city officials are his “clients,” then what is the public that elected him to office? 

There is evidence, however, that someone in Feuer’s office disagrees with Englander. In a March 4, 2014 report to the PLUM committee, the City Planning Department recommended that the city take action against billboards erected with permits but subsequently altered by being enlarged or having a second face added without permits. That recommendation, according to the report, was made “in conjunction with the Department of Building and Safety and the Office of the City Attorney…” 

The report concludes that the aforementioned state law, which says that billboards that haven’t been cited within five years of their erection are presumed to have been lawfully erected, doesn’t apply to billboards that have been illegally modified at some point after being put up. If that’s correct, then what accounts for Englander’s emphatically stated fear that the city will be tied up for years in expensive litigation if it tries to enforce the sign codes? 

Maybe it was whispers from Clear Channel, which threatened to sue the city for more than $100 million if the company’s 84 digital billboards were shut down. (the billboards were turned off in 2013 by court order, but no lawsuit has materialized). Or from Lamar Advertising, which sued the city for the right to put up 45 digital billboards around the city and won a Superior Court ruling that the city is now appealing. Or Outfront Media (formerly CBS Outdoor), which joined Clear Channel in the 2002 lawsuit against the city that led to the notorious settlement that resulted in 101 new digital billboards on city streets. 

But one thing is obvious. The holy grail for those billboard companies isn’t keeping a bunch of unpermitted and illegally altered billboards up and displaying ads for fast food, alcohol, soft drinks, and a host of other products and services. 

The holy grail is digital billboards, and the companies are willing to take a lot of those existing billboards down if the city gives them the green light to put up new digital signs that brightly beam those ads every eight seconds to a captive audience of motorists and pedestrians and make the billboard company cash registers ring. 

But first those billboards need to be given the imprimatur of legality no matter whether they were put up without permits or had second faces added or were raised or enlarged for better visibility. And that’s exactly what Englander and his apparently compliant fellow members of the PLUM committee will end up doing with this proposal, the dirty work for an industry that has shown scant respect for city regulations and the communities that are home to their signs.

 

(Dennis Hathaway is the president of the Ban Billboard Blight coalition.  He can be reached at: [email protected]

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 10

Pub: Feb 3, 2015

 

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