I was out of town most of last month and missed Steve Hymon's Sept. 14 L.A. Times article on the city council settlement of lawsuits by Clear Channel and CBS challenging the city's billboard regulations. By the time I got around to reading both the article and the text of the settlement, I had to marvel not only at how our craven council members caved into to these deep-pocketed media companies, but how the Times produced an account so superficial and misleading that a serious reaming of the public actually looks like an accrual to the common good.
For the record, Clear Channel and CBS sued the city in 2002 after the passage of an ordinance calling for an inventory of all billboards in the city, and the levying of an annual fee to pay for inspection of these billboards to insure compliance with city codes and safety standards. In lawsuits in both state and federal courts, the companies alleged infringement of their constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection, a claim that was most recently rejected by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Despite this victory, the council was apparently in fear of further appeals from these aggressively litigious companies, and entered into negotiations to settle the suits.
Or rather, designated the city attorney to negotiate a settlement. It shouldn't surprise anyone, therefore, that the settlement gives these multi-billion dollar media conglomerates almost everything they could have wished for, since City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo was the beneficiary of $425,000 worth of free billboard advertising from Clear Channel and other outdoor advertising firms in his tough 2001 election campaign against Mike Feuer, who as a city council member had called for tougher billboard regulations and the cleaning up of visual blight.
The fact of this huge contribution to Delgadillo's campaign was noted in an Oct. 5, 2005 article in the Times, but last month's article on the settlement failed to make any mention of it. Perhaps it wasn't considered relevant, or perhaps the Times felt that more negative news about the ethically-challenged Delgadillo would constitute piling on. I don't know. What I do know is that anyone who expected the settlement to do anything but reflect the desire of these companies to cram advertising into every square foot of the city's visual space had to be smoking something very strange.
In brief, the settlement allows the companies to legalize billboards illegally erected up to 1999--by some estimates, there are more than 10,000 such things--and to convert nearly 900 existing billboards to the kind of digital, animated and 3-D displays now prohibited by city ordinance. Welcome Las Vegas and Times Square to your neighborhood commercial boulevard. In return, the companies have to tear down a total of 98 signs and the city gets to levy an annual inspection fee that works out to $62 a year per sign. And the whole inspection program expires after 6 years, as if the need to monitor what these companies are doing will magically cease to exist.
Hymon's article in the Times actually led with the fact that 98 billboards were going to have to come down, as if the city had won some kind of substantial victory. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, and it's dismaying to see the Times so badly miss the point, which is that these media conglomerates have both the money and moxie to blatantly subvert the public will.