By Gary Walker
For two of the nation’s largest billboard companies, the phrase “lights out” took on a whole new meaning April 15.
That was the deadline given to Clear Channel Communications and CBS Outdoors by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Green in an April 12 ruling that ordered the outdoor sign companies to turn off the vast majority of their digital signs throughout the city.
Green’s order is the latest court victory by Los Angeles over billboard firms in a long-running battle over outdoor signage, and what its supporters say are its value in assisting law enforcement in notifying the public regarding accidents and kidnappings and what its opponents call visual blight.
It also represents a political feather in the cap of City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who is facing a May 21 runoff battle with former Assemblyman Michael Feuer.
“The courts have spoken and the time has come for CBS and Clear Channel Outdoor to turn off their digital signs in keeping with the law,” Trutanich said in a statement. “We want to thank Judge Green for his guidance in this matter, so that we may now move forward together, committed to a transparent path for authorizing digital billboards in Los Angeles that gives all residents and all companies a fair stake in the process.”
Venice resident Mindy Taylor-Ross, who has contended with a digital billboard shining into her bedroom for seven years, applauded the judge’s ruling.
“I’m thrilled with the judge’s ruling. It shows the power people have to rise above even government influence and back-door dealings, to do the right thing,” Taylor-Ross asserted.
Trutanich called a press conference March 22 to demand that CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel turn off their signs after the state Supreme Court decided Feb. 27 in Summit Media vs. Los Angeles not to consider an appeal by the outdoor sign companies to a ruling last year that struck down a previous contract between the city and the two firms.
In 2002, the city reached an agreement with Clear Channel and CBS Outdoors that allowed them to convert 840 of their signs from static to digital. An appellate court invalidated that contract on Dec. 9.
Five days after Trutanich’s press conference, Sign Up L.A, which describes itself as a “coalition of business groups, nonprofit organizations and sign companies,” submitted over 3,300 signatures to the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee.
“These petitions send a strong message to city leaders that residents clearly recognize the important public safety and community benefits of digital signs,” said Rick Robinson, executive director of Art Share L.A.
“I stand with my fellow community members in asking the City Council to move forward and craft a reasonable digital sign policy – as has been done in hundreds of municipalities throughout the nation,” he continued. “The community, economic and public safety benefits of digital signs are very real and Los Angeles should continue to receive these benefits of progress, not go backwards.”
Robinson was referring to a recommendation from the committee that the council voted in favor of Oct. 16 for an ordinance that that would examine the “potential legal disputes” that digital signs might cause as well as a method where the city could obtain a portion of the millions of dollars that electronic signs bring in annually.
“Clear Channel will follow Judge Green’s decision and turn off our signs,” said Clear Channel Communications spokesman David Graybert.
Following the December ruling, the outdoor sign companies warned city officials that it would consider suing if the signs were turned off.
Graybert told The Argonaut that Clear Channel would keep their options open regarding any legal action.
“Our company will pursue all legal avenues to renew operation of our signs as soon as possible in order to service our customers and the community,” he said.
Mar Vista Community Council Chair Sharon Commins said an outdoor sign within her council district’s boundary caught the board’s attention shortly after the billboard companies were allowed to convert many of their signs into digital billboards.
“I am very pleased at the ruling. The Mar Vista Community Council has received a number of complaints about these signs since they went live,” Commins said. “The one at National and Sawtelle (boulevards) was the first to draw the ire of the residents in Westdale.”
The Del Rey Neighborhood Council became the latest Westside local council to support a resolution asking city officials to turn off the digital billboards. Mar Vista and the Venice Neighborhood Council voted in favor of a similar resolution last month.
Graybert, who noted that the digital conversion was voted on over a decade ago by the City Council, said the billboards that are now turned off can not only affect public safety but have community benefits.
“These signs are important communications tools to local businesses, non-profits, public agencies, and law enforcement. These organizations have come to depend on the community broadcast capabilities of digital signs,” he said. “Starting at 5 p.m. on Monday, no more AMBER Alerts on these signs.
“That’s just one example of important messages that we can’t get out to the community as a result of this decision.”
An AMBER Alert is child abduction alert system throughout the United States. Many of the alerts are transmitted via billboards on freeways.
Taylor-Ross commended the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight and its executive director, Venice resident Dennis Hathaway, which has been at the forefront of trying to get the numbers of billboards decreased throughout the city. “He has worked tirelessly on this issue,” she said.
For Clear Channel and CBS Outdoors, it’s time to turn off the lights
By Gary Walker