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L.A. Council to discuss billboards amid calls to have digital signs removed

November 17, 2009 |  7:00 am

Some of those bright, flashing digital billboards across Los Angeles could soon go dark if a handful of City Council members have their way.

A council committee today will begin wrestling with how the city should proceed in the wake of Superior Court Judge Terry Green's ruling that invalidated a 2006 billboard settlement between the city and two outdoor advertising companies, CBS Outdoor Inc. and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. That agreement, brokered after the two companies sued the city over its earlier billboard regulations, authorized a variety of changes to 840 billboards, including adding a second face or converting them to a digital format.

In his ruling earlier this month, the judge said city officials should decide to handle 101 of the signs modernized so far.

Neighborhood groups, arguing that the signs have created visual blight and distractions for drivers, are urging council members to move quickly by ordering the companies to convert the billboards back to their conventional state. But with millions of dollars at stake, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor are appealing the judge’s ruling and urging the council to let the case work its way through the courts before taking action.

In the proposal under discussion today, Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilman Ed Reyes have asked the city’s Building and Safety Department to “immediately evaluate” whether the 101 digital signs should be removed or modified. It would also bar city officials from issuing any additional permits to the two companies for digital sign conversions. Four permits are still pending, council aides say. (New digital billboards and multistory supergraphics were permanently banned by the council in August).

A spokesman for City Atty. Carmen Trutanich would not comment on the advice from city lawyers to the council. But lawyers and lobbyists on both sides are lining up for the fight.

Last Friday, lawyers for Summit Media, the sign company that successfully challenged the 2006 settlement on the grounds that the city illegally granted special rights to CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel, asked the council to immediately revoke the special permits and warned that failing to do so could place the city in legal jeopardy. “City leaders can now correct a mistake that has adversely affected millions of Los Angeles residents and visitors,” lawyer Anthony Alden wrote in a letter to council members. “Summit urges the city to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity and revoke the permits improperly issued under an illegal agreement.”

Phil Recht, another lawyer for Summit Media, added that the city “is not obligated to sit on its hands during the appeal. The city has the power to revoke these permits whenever it wants.”

But an attorney for CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, Laura Brill, said in her own letter Monday that proposals to take down the modernized signs unfairly targeted the two companies and sent “an ominous message to the entire business community in Los Angeles that the city does not respect its contractual commitments.”

“The business community at large is watching this issue closely to see if the city can be counted on to stand behind its commitments and to be a reliable partner to those who invest so heavily in the local economy and in our community,” Brill wrote.

-- Maeve Reston at L.A. City Hall

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