By Gary Walker
One of the nation’s largest outdoor sign companies has issued Los Angeles city officials an ultimatum in the continuing battle over billboards: do not touch our digitally converted signs or else.
The “else” is an implied threat of a $100 million lawsuit by outdoor advertising firm Clear Channel Communication against the city, which was outlined in a Feb. 22 letter to City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council President Herb Wesson.
“This letter and its attachments set out the steps Clear Channel must take to protect its digital sign inventory in Los Angeles in the days to come. This letter also sets out a series of options for resolving the legal status of Clear Channel’s digital signs and associated permits in the city,” wrote Sara Lee Keller, executive director and general counsel for Clear Channel.
In her letter, Keller spelled out her firm’s plans if the city seeks to take the billboards down.
“Clear Channel has submitted (on Feb. 22) the city’s required form for monetary damages, which provides notice of Clear
Channel’s potential claims against the city. These would accrue if the city seeks to revoke Clear Channel’s permits or to have Clear Channel turn off or take down its signs,” Keller wrote.
“If the city takes any such action, it would be exposed to liability to Clear Channel for the fair market value of such signs, which substantially exceeds $100 million.”
The warning comes almost three months after an appellate court struck down a 2006 agreement between the city, Clear Channel and CBS Outdoors that allowed the companies to convert 840 existing billboards into digital signs. Keller called the appellate court’s ruling “very troubling.”
Councilman Bill Rosendahl said the billboard company’s warning was par for the course during litigation.
“Their threat is clear: they want to keep the money,” said the councilman, who has witnessed his 11th District be bombarded by outdoor advertising over the last several years.
Marcia Hanscom, a Playa del Rey resident who has attended City Council meetings to protest the onslaught of digital signs in District 11, was taken aback to hear that Clear Channel was considering suing the city over digital signs.
“Clear Channel has had problems with illegal signs in the coastal zone in the past,” said Hanscom, referring to a billboard at the corner of Lincoln and Washington boulevards near Venice that the state Coastal Commission forced the company to take down several years ago.
Trutanich, who is seeking reelection, came into office in 2009 promising to crack down on outdoor sign companies and has prosecuted owners of these firms as well as issued steep fines.
“I’m going to do the right thing by the people of Los Angeles,” Trutanich told The Argonaut on the day that he was sworn into office. “We’re going to stop the proliferation of billboards, and the owners of these outdoor signs will have to follow strict guidelines from now on.
“I intend to put teeth back in the law,” Trutanich promised. “I can assure you that we will prosecute those who violate the law not civilly but criminally.”
Hanscom says the city attorney has been true to his word.
“I think that (Trutanich) has done a great job holding the line against (billboard companies) and I think that has been the only thing that has prevented the proliferation of them,” Hanscom said. “It seems like every time we turn around there are more of these digital conversions, more intrusions into the public space.”
While there is a moratorium on digital conversion, many existing static signs were grandfathered into law when the city began revamping its sign ordinance.
“The city is at a crucial juncture; it can trigger costly litigation that exposes taxpayers to hundreds of millions of dollars, or it can avoid the courtroom and resolve the legal status of digital signs in a way that reaps fiscal and aesthetic benefits for the city,” Keller wrote.
“If the city elects the first course, Clear Channel will be forced to protect its rights in court. If the city chooses the second, Clear Channel stands ready to negotiate a mutually beneficial resolution.
“We hope the city will choose the latter, and look forward to continuing to work with the city to identify solutions that benefit both parties,” Keller concluded.
Clear Channel was able to convert approximately 80 billboards to digital before the ruling was overturned.