By Gary Walker
Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is asking Clear Channel Communications, CBS Outdoors and other billboard companies to remove their signs from the public landscape after a series of court victories by the city in recent months.
At a March 22 press conference, Trutanich asked the outdoor advertising firms to shut off their digitally converted billboards.
“The courts have spoken; it’s time CBS Outdoors and Clear Channel to turn off their digital billboards in keeping with the law,” the city attorney told reporters.
The call to have the digital signs taken down comes on the heels of a Dec. 9 ruling invalidating an agreement between Los Angeles, Clear Channel and CBS Outdoors in 2002 that allowed the billboard companies to convert 840 of their signs from static to digital.
After Clear Channel appealed the ruling, the state Supreme Court decided not to review the case, Summit Media vs. Los Angeles, on Feb. 27, paving the way for city leaders to remove the now illegal signs.
Venice resident Mindy Taylor-Ross has lived near a billboard by Superba Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard that has been shining into her bedroom and bathroom for seven years. “It’s very distracting,” she said.
The proliferation of outdoor signs in communities like Mar Vista, Playa del Rey, Westchester and Venice has been a heated topic of discussion for several years on the Westside.
Mar Vista First Vice President Bill Koontz recalled when City Councilman Bill Rosendahl led teams of residents coordinated through local neighborhood councils to catalogue all of the digital billboards in the 11th Council District area.
The citizen effort uncovered several outdoor unpermitted signs from a variety of billboard companies, including Clear Channel.
The Mar Vista Community Council and Venice Neighborhood Council earlier this month passed resolutions asking the City Council to take down the 103 billboards that were invalidated by the court.
“We further request that the city refrain from making any changes to the zoning laws relative to digital billboards until the illegal billboards are removed and such proposed change has been subjected to an open and transparent outreach process to community stakeholders,” states the resolution from the community council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Despite the court victories, Taylor-Ross is not convinced that city officials will seek to remove the illegal outdoor signs because of the financial windfall of outdoor signs, which generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the city.
“I don’t think they’re going to work to get rid of this burden because of the immense amount of money that these billboards bring in,” she said. “When you’re dealing with that kind of money, you’re going to be swayed.”
Koontz echoed a similar tone.
“For purely financial reasons, the majority of the City Council voted to take the money from Clear Channel anyway, stakeholder concerns be damned. After all, the city is ‘broke’ and who cares if it is an illegal contract,” he asserted.
“Now this decision has come around to bite them, and the courts have weighed in on the matter. The facts of the case are that what the city did was proven in a court of law to be illegal,” Koontz continued. “Whether or not they knew it at the time is irrelevant.
“Every day they continue to allow those signs to be turned on to generate advertising revenue for Clear Channel they are breaking the law.”
David Grabert, Clear Channel Communications’ vice president of marketing and communications, said his company has tried to work cooperatively with the city.
“Clear Channel Outdoor has always abided by the law in the operating of our signs in Los Angeles. Our signs were modernized to digital after a thorough permitting process that included public hearings and review by the city attorney, the mayor and unanimous approval by the City Council,” Grabert told The Argonaut.
“Following the court’s decision invalidating the authorizations we received from city officials, we actively participated in the working group process initiated by the City Council to plan for a path forward that will allow the reasonable use and location of digital signs in Los Angeles. This is important not only for the local economy, public safety and community members, but also to the sign companies who generate millions in salaries and taxes in the city.”
Koontz said now that Trutanich has asked that the signs be turned off, it is the council’s duty to respond to that request.
“It was my understanding that one of the jobs of the city attorney is to advise the council and mayor’s office when something they do breaks the law. Well, they have and he has warned them,” he said. “The next move should be for the council to direct the (Department of Water and Power) to turn off the electricity to those signs until they can figure out whether Clear Channel’s attorneys will sue as they have promised.”
Koontz was referring to an earlier letter sent to city leaders after the December ruling by Clear Channel’s executive vice president and general counsel, Sara Keller.
“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 city attorney, who is facing a May 21 runoff election against former Assemblyman Michael Feuer, offered to work with the outdoor advertising firms after they remove their signs.
“With guidance from the court, we will move forward together, a working group of community and industry representatives 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,” he said.
Grabert hinted that while Clear Channel is committed to working with city leaders on a solution to the billboard problem now that the high court has sustained the appellate ruling invalidating them, the billboard firm is keeping its legal options open.
“We welcome the city attorney’s involvement in the process already established by the City Council, and with the city attorney await the court’s specific guidance in their forthcoming order. Until this final order, we will continue to legally operate our digital signs in L.A,” he said.
“At this time, our focus is on the development of a legislative solution in collaboration with the city and the working group,” Grabert added. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of our shareholders and will explore available avenues only if the city is not able to find a fair and responsible solution.”
Trutanich calls for billboards to come down in wake of court settlement
By Gary Walker