Regulation of digital signs could come before pending settlement

A yearslong debate over electronic billboards that had temporarily cooled was ignited again Oct. 16 when the Los Angeles City Council voted to pursue a strategy for regulating the outdoor signs and seeking a share of the revenue from their profits.
The council asked its Planning Committee as well as City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office to craft an ordinance that would examine “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.
The 11-3 vote sets in motion a potential 360-degree turn regarding digital billboards from city leaders’ previous stance on the electronic outdoor signs.
The vote was applauded by major outdoor advertising companies, including Clear Channel Outdoor.
Critics of digital signs, who contend they constitute visual blight, see the vote as the city allowing outdoor advertising companies the opportunity to increase their profits and perhaps add more signs to the existing structures throughout Los Angeles.
They also say seeking a new ordinance is premature, given that there is a pending case before the federal court that could invalidate approximately 100 billboards throughout Los Angeles.
“I think they’re jumping the gun. I think they should wait for a ruling on the court case,” said Venice resident David Ewing.
Representatives from Clear Channel have contacted Trutanich’s office on multiple occasions regarding the pending legal action in an effort to compel the city to consider new regulations prior to the court case.
“The Court of Appeal has sent a notice inviting us, the city and the other parties in the case to participate in its appellate mediation process,” wrote Sara Lee Keller, Clear Channel’s general counsel. “We respectfully suggest that the City Council should be consulted as to the city’s willingness to engage in settlement discussions concerning this case.
“We remain committed to supporting a legislative solution to the issues related to the stipulated judgment, which would also provide a path forward to clarify the rules for future outdoor advertising in Los Angeles,” Keller continued.
“Clear Channel Outdoor is particularly focused on affirming the legal status of existing digital displays permitted by the Department of Building and Safety.”
Trutanich, who came into office in 2009 pledging to crack down on illegal billboards, stated in a July 5 letter that his office, despite Clear Channel’s efforts, was not engaging in any settlement talks with billboard companies.
“The city respectfully desires an expeditious hearing and ruling to provide finality to the issues regarding its laws and the scope of its authority,” the city attorney wrote. “We respectfully again advise that the office of the city attorney is not now and has not ever been engaged in settlement discussions with Clear Channel or with any of the parties to this appeal.
“This remains true despite sporadic efforts by Clear Channel to find a willing ear in the city for its overtures.”
Obtaining revenue from digital billboards has been a concern of Councilman Bill Rosendahl since his coastal district has been on the receiving end of what some have called a bombardment of traditional and electronic advertising over the last several years. On April 13 last year he submitted a motion that asked the city’s legal staff, as well as the city Department of Building and Safety, to explore how to secure a possible revenue stream from outdoor signs that have made the transition to digital advertising.
“There has been a recent trend around the city to convert many existing billboards to digital, which has significantly increased the revenue generated by these signs,” the motion stated. “With the city facing a $350 million budget deficit in the upcoming fiscal year and nearly every revenue category projected to remain flat or further decline, the city needs to find creative ways to tap into a portion of the revenue derived from digital billboards.”
Rosendahl’s motion was passed by the council.
The councilman said seeking a clarification on how and if the city could obtain some of the revenue stream of the outdoor advertising companies was essentially the same as the city receiving payment from advertising companies that have contracts with Los Angeles to display posters in street furniture – bus benches and shelters.
“This is a motion that I feel very strongly about,” Rosendahl said. “I believe that we should be getting a revenue stream from these billboards, which many of my constituents view as visual blight.”
Councilman Herb Wesson proposed putting a measure on the 2011 municipal ballot that would have put a 12 percent tax on billboards that proponents say could have raised an estimated $24 million. The council chose not to place the proposal on the ballot.
Rosendahl, who announced earlier this month that he will be retiring from the council at the end of his term while he undergoes treatment for cancer of the ureter, was not present for the vote but told The Argonaut that he would have voted in opposition had he been in council chambers.
“Any decision to enter into discussions with sign companies that have settlement agreements with the city should be carefully considered in consultation with our city attorney,” he wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to his colleagues.
“The settlement agreements allowed for the unchecked proliferation of digital billboard blight throughout West Los Angeles, bringing more than 100 new digital billboards to the region.
“I have long been a proponent of the city receiving a fair portion of the revenue generated through outdoor advertising. But I believe that our legislative process is the best method to address this issue.”
The recent history of billboards in Los Angeles is replete with court rulings where outdoor sign companies and city leaders have scored some important victories. A 2006 legal settlement approved by the council allowed two of the largest outdoor advertising firms, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, to convert up to 840 billboards to digital formats.
On Sept. 28, 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins ruled against Liberty Media Company in a case where the billboard firm was seeking to enjoin Los Angeles from imposing a ban on all new supergraphics, billboards and other outdoor signage. The City Council had previously issued three moratoriums on digital signs during the time that it was working on a new sign ordinance.
On Aug. 7 of that year they passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting additional digital signs.
Ewing, who lives off Lincoln Boulevard, calls the thoroughfare one of the most blighted on the Westside. He took part in a 2008 effort to catalogue all of the illegal billboards in Council District 11.
“The city seems feckless in trying to get a handle on what’s out there,” he said, referring to the number of unpermitted billboards that were counted.
Timothy Alger of Perkins and Coie, who represents Santa Monica based Summit Media, which is appealing an earlier billboard ruling, did not return calls for comment.
Council members asked that the proposed ordinance be presented to them next month.