In another setback to outdoor advertising firms, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down a 2006 settlement on November 5th that city leaders made with several billboard companies that allowed them to upgrade their traditional signs to digital advertisements.

“Different rules applied to the real parties (CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel) that didn’t apply to anyone else in the industry,” Superior Court Judge Terry Green said on October 30th after his initial ruling. “The entire agreement is poison.”

Santa Monica-based Summit Media brought a lawsuit against the city, arguing that the legal agreement was unfair to it and other outdoor advertising companies due to the fact that Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor were allowed to convert their billboards into digital signs while others were not.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contended that city officials had acted beyond the scope of their authority when they approved the settlement, which permitted certain outdoor advertising companies to convert 840 billboards into digital formats.

“The court’s ruling was a victory for the people of Los Angeles, because the agreement had allowed CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor to erect digital billboards throughout the city in disregard for city codes and without public hearings,” said Anthony Alden of Quinn Emanuel, Urquhart, Oliver and Hedges, the law firm representing Summit.

“We’re confident that city officials will now do the right thing and revoke the permits for the existing digital signs; and insist that the signs be promptly turned off and removed.”

The judge invalidated the city’s agreement with the billboard companies on November 5th, but did not revoke the permits that had been granted to several advertising companies.

This is the third time this year that outdoor advertising firms, which generate millions of dollars for the city, have faced adverse court rulings.

An appeals court ruled on January 6th that the council was within its legal right to place a prohibition on billboard signs. Metro Lights LLC, an outdoor advertising firm, had argued that the ban violates its First Amendment rights, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the council’s decision to impose the moratorium.

And on September 28th, U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins refused to overturn a sweeping prohibition on outdoor advertising passed by the City Council in August. Liberty Media Company was turned away in its effort to enjoin the city from imposing a ban on all new supergraphics, billboards and other outdoor signage, which went into effect on August 7th.

Shannon Jacobs, a spokeswoman for CBS Outdoors, told The Argonaut that her firm would appeal Green’s ruling.

“We believe our settlement agreement with the city is valid. It was negotiated by the city attorney and approved unanimously by the City Council, as well as the mayor and Judge (Ralph) Dau of the California Superior Court,” Jacobs said. “We intend to appeal this decision and to take any other actions necessary to protect our interests.”

Jacobs was referring to former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who came under fire from homeowner associations and anti-blight activists for recommending the settlement.

Clear Channel indicated that it would challenge the verdict as well.

“We believe that our agreement with the city is valid and intend to appeal the court’s decision,” Tony Alwin, senior vice president of marketing and public relations, said in a statement on November 9th.

Dennis Hathaway, the executive director of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, said that he felt vindicated after hearing the court ruling.

“This is what our organization and so many others have been saying when we first heard about the agreement back in 2006,” Hathaway, a Venice resident, said. “It’s very gratifying.”

City officials are now considering their next move after Green’s ruling.

“We plan to meet with the City Council as soon as possible to discuss our options,” said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for City Attorney Carmen Trutanich. “We will also be meeting with the Department of Building and Safety to explain their options to them.”

Hathaway said he was heartened that the 2006 agreement has been nullified. But he was dismayed that Green did not revoke the permits of the outdoor sign firms, instead leaving the door open for residents to challenge the validity of each sign’s permit, which the Venice resident feels is putting an undue hardship on the public.

“This really puts an enormous burden on the citizenry,” Hathaway stated. “Most people cannot afford to spend the kind of money, which is usually several thousand dollars, that is necessary to challenge the legality of these signs.”

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, one of the council’s most vocal advocates regarding the number of billboards that have inundated the Westside in recent years, would like to see digital signs that are viewed as detrimental to his constituents removed.

“Whenever a sign is perceived as a safety hazard or a visual blight, it should be taken down, period,” the councilman asserted.

Rosendahl added that the city should pursue what he calls “a revenue stream review” from the outdoor advertising companies to see how much money his 11th District can recoup from the millions of dollars that is generated by the installation of these signs.

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