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Sun, Apr

Anatomy of Greed: The City Council and the Billboard Scandal 

LOS ANGELES

ACCORDING TO LIZ - They’re at it again, folks, and I’m raising my voice in opposition. Again.

At the first Budget and Finance Committee meeting following the debates on the City’s fractured budget, Bob Blumenfield and his merry band of co-conspirators on the disbursement of Angelenos’ tax dollars will take up the proposal offered by the County’s LA Metro system in to push through the monetization of their rights-of-way in Los Angeles by allowing the display of digital signboards.

In January of 2023, the LA Metro Board approved the installation of nearly 100 new digital signs on up to 49 Metro-owned parcels throughout the City, ranging in size from 300 square feet to 1,200 square feet per sign. Although the largest are to be freeway adjacent, that will not stop them from interfering with the lives of the thousands of Angelenos living nearby.

Proposed placements include the two East Hollywood Metro stations on Vermont Avenue, beside the 101 Freeway across from Angeleno Heights, and on either side of the 5 Freeway in Cypress Park. They are 30 to 48 feet wide, will block visibility and attract eyeballs without an appropriate reduction in speed, distracting drivers, leading to accidents and injuries. 

Digital billboards’ flashing lights and changing images will contribute to urban blight, aggravate light pollution overall, disrupt our peaceful neighborhoods, hurt property values, harm the environment, and negatively impact the physical and mental health of those living within range of their electronic humming and flickering lights.

Multi-billion-dollar signboard companies conspire to use a city’s roads and infrastructure to make millions, while giving nothing beneficial back to the community. Owners of the lots on which billboards are located may profit modestly — but the billboards, especially those digital disruptors, impair all our lives.

This has to stop.

More than 700 communities across the United States have banned billboards. Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont have banned them statewide.

Following Metro’s approval, surveys showed that over 70% of Angelenos opposed any kind of additional signage in their neighborhoods. 

In Los Angeles where even Council Districts exceed most towns and many small cities in population, our predilection for road travel provides countless opportunities for marketing mavens. So all the outdoor advertising companies have doubled down on their behind-the-scenes machinations at City Hall to seduce our elected officials, eviscerate signage restrictions, and further fertilize our city for an invasion of flashing and distracting billboards screens. 

Maybe it’s ok for capitalist cronies to pick a pocket or two with our Councilmembers’ eyes averted. But four million pockets when the populace has strenuously opposed billboards for years?

The proposal then went to the Planning Department for rubber-stamping. Despite almost universal pushback at public hearings and individually from stakeholders, the clearly tone-deaf (or, perhaps, well back-scratched) Planning Department approved the ordinance and kicked it back to the City Council.

To the ruling body of a City desperately short of cash, having last year approved usurious labor agreements they knew were upcoming (but for which they chose not to budget), along with spend, spend, spend approaches to the longstanding affordable housing and homelessness crises. Compounded by ultimately unrealistic estimates of the City's future income.

Our Council horseshoe fifteen are now squabbling with the departments over what services for Angelenos to eviscerate to cover up their fiscal mismanagement.

And late last month, the infamous Kevin De León introduced a motion to determine how revenue from these yet-to-be-approved Transportation Communication Network (TCN) billboards should be shared among the districts. He is expecting 12 Metro TCN proposed billboards in his personal fiefdom, Council District 14. Yummy!

Of course KDL might have served his voters better by pursuing the miscreants responsible for the 99 billboards in CD 14 without proper permits. But no grateful constituent could reach the heights of ego-adulation and contributions to his re-election war-chest that comes from rubbing elbows with the business honchos pushing the digital billboard expansion.

And for a CD 14 Councilmember to come in number two in the primaries when most incumbents walk away with the super-majority needed to avoid a run-off, KDL is clearly desperate to cling onto his quarter-of-a-million-dollar-plus annual salary and benefits package.

Despite hundreds of thousands of mailers, incessant calls and TV blandishments, KDL barely surpassed 20% of the vote, so the man is in deep doo-doo. 

But this infighting all assumes that the revenue-sharing framework is actually beneficial. Given the quality of the deals the City has made in recent years with the trash haulers and its own unions, it’s more likely that the proposed bonanza from allowing these digital monstrosities to procreate is just another exercise in ripping off Angelenos.

Net revenue? After the shysters extract their expenses, how much will remain for us? And how well can we trust folks who consistently take projected surpluses and metamorphosize them into a sea of red ink?

Money, money, money.

Given the ethical stains on the City Council at the moment, it needs to walk back all current and proposed billboard regulations and start again with their electorate’s desires as the primary consideration.

Again, we call on the Budget and Finance Committee – Bob Blumenfield, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Katy Yaroslavsky, Tim McOsker, and Monica Rodriguez – as well as the other City Councilmembers to insist on amplified community engagement, that people’s concerns should come before corporate profits, and that all discussion, debates and, especially, closed-door meetings be subject to full transparency before moving further forward on embracing Blade-Runner-esque digital signage in Los Angeles. 

Cooperation, solidarity, and collective action make a difference. When individuals join together to oppose policies that are not in their interest and fight corruption at City Hall, we can win. It just takes a bit of effort.

But once the fix is in, folks, it’s hard to stem the tide.

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)