February 1, 2002 - From the February, 2002 issue

Billboards: Speaking Truth About Reform To Real Political Power

Since Dec. 31st, Council motions to ban, regulate or even swap billboards have been feverishly debated in L.A. City Hall. But haven't we been through this before? Doesn't anyone remember that this is not the first time a motion has been made to regulate and/or curtail billboard proliferation? Michael Feuer, Of Counsel at Morrison & Foerster and a former City Councilmember remembers, and after first assessing the reform motions currently pending, offers his insight into how this debate might finally end while noting the degree of difficulty electeds have in regulating and reforming an industry that recently gave $700,000 in political contributions to the Mayor, City Attorney and key Councilmembers.


Michael Feuer

Michael,please begin by giving our readers a sense of what the Billboard issue in Los Angeles is all about from the perspective of a neighborhood association or business improvement district. What's at stake here and what are the dimensions of the public policy issues?

The billboard controversy has several different dimensions because of the number of proposals pending in the City Council. One of the proposals currently floating in City Hall would enable billboard companies to trade billboards on the streets for billboards along the freeway. Another proposal would ban new billboards in the City altogether. A third seeks to regulate billboards by enabling the City to monitor which are legal. And yet another is searching for a way to resurrect the best elements of an ordinance that I authored to get alcohol and tobacco billboards away from where kids are located.

And what has catalyzed this new found interest in city regulation? What's causing all this sudden attention?

About four or five years ago when I was on the City Council, I proposed a moratorium on all new billboards. That proposal didn't even get enough Council support to be reviewed in Committee.

Since that time the issue has evolved quite dramatically. My guess is that there were two major catalysts that caused this evolution: 1)The extraordinary involvement of the billboard industry in the last citywide election; and 2) The forwarding of a City Council proposal allowing billboards along freeways. The confluence of those two factors has created the billboard issue that is before the City Council today.

How should the Council and our readers view the proposal to swap illegal billboards for legal ones along our freeways in light all we have discussed and press coverage to date?

It is possible to imagine a structure that enables a large number of billboards in the City to be swapped for a small number along the freeway. It could have been a good idea. But only if several other factors were in place first.

There needs to be an initial study of the safety impact of placing billboards along freeways. By their nature, billboards are designed to distract a viewer from whatever he or she is doing. In this case, when people are driving hundreds of pounds of dangerous metal along the freeway, one would want to be sure that those drivers are as focused as possible on the task at hand.

Second, a mechanism must be in place that catalogs billboards based on whether they were erected legally or not. Without doing that, it would be easy for a billboard company to simply trade an illegal billboard for a legal one along the freeway.

And third, the last iteration of the freeway proposal that I saw gave the billboard industry unilateral discretion over which billboards could be exchanged. That takes away the City's power to target particularly blighted neighborhoods and incentivizes the billboard industry to trade the least revenue-producing billboards for ones that are likely to yield tens of thousands of dollars a month. That aspect of the proposal also must be beefed up dramatically if this motion is to have any merit.

Are the politics right for the Council and the Mayor to adopt such a full set of proposals?

When the City Council voted to support the idea of a billboard swap and dispense with the problems above, it signaled the billboard industry's substantial influence in City Hall. And when the billboard industry put up over $700,000 worth of billboards for political candidates in the last election, they again sent the strong message that they were a dramatic player in the City. Because of that I am skeptical that the time is right for the Council to adopt such a full set of proposals. And until the issue of the illegal billboards has been dealt with in a way that has some muscle behind it, the politics will continue to be wrong to deal with this issue. On this last point, maybe the new ordinance Jack Weiss drafted will move things forward.

It is also unlikely that this Council is poised to put the brakes on the freeway billboard proposal. No action that they've taken to date suggests that that proposal is slowing down. And of the City Council members now serving, only Cindy Miscikowski has strongly opposed this action. And I doubt that in the end her views will carry the day. The only facet of the billboard issue that the politics may be right to deal with is the issue of illegally erected billboards.

Are you suggesting that even in light of the news coverage of the relationship between Councilmember Hal Bernson and Ken Spiker and Spiker's multi-million dollar deal that there is still no Council energy to put a break on that proposal?

Except for Cindy, I haven't seen it.

The press seems to have latched on to a loophole in the City's campaign finance reporting requirements such that a lobbyist need not report contingency fees. They've also focussed on Spiker's official city advisory role. What's your reaction to this coverage and focus?

I don't know. But I'm not sure how important the fee issue is. The unfortunate part of that situation is that Ken Spiker has a role on the committee which is shaping the content of these billboard proposals. If he were not on that committee, nobody would care about the fee. Everybody recognizes that lobbyists are hired guns and are paid to promote a particular point of view.

Opponents of regulation of billboards cite legal limitations on City action. Share with our readers the status of the law re: local billboard regulation.

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There's plenty of room for the city to more effectively regulate billboards. First, there is absolutely no impediment to aggressively dismantling illegal billboards and signs around the city. Any agenda that proposes putting more up before we do that completely misses the point.

Enforcement of illegal signs and billboards is easy, there simply has to be a will and capital to do it. Unfortunately, both seem to be increasingly scarce in L.A. Because of that, I think that the impetus behind Cindy Miscikowski's proposal to impose a meaningful tax on each billboard in the city is promising. That source of revenue could be directed to all sorts of purposes, including enforcement.

There are many things that the city could do right now to further regulate billboards and from my vantage almost all the proposals on the table, including Miscikowski's proposed initiative, should pass legal muster. The only thing that cannot be undertaking under the current statutory landscape is removing existing, legal billboards. They are protected by state legislation precluding jurisdictions from eliminating billboards without meaningful long-term compensation.

Give us some sense of the pressures Councilmembers are under when they attempt to legislate in this area.

Everybody's under a lot of pressure to raise money. But generally speaking, in an era of term limits, once you're an incumbent you face little or no opposition unless you commit some kind of egregious wrong while in office. Almost no one is going to challenge you because incumbents almost always successfully fend off challengers. Everybody, including viable challengers, realizes that. So if one analyzes this with any care at all, the need to raise money has no impact on decisions like these.

Having said that however, most people who become Councilmembers have aspirations that transcend the City Council. And in taking a long-term perspective, they may be reluctant to burn bridges with an industry as well-heeled as the billboard industry, particularly when they have seen that they can contribute both directly and through so-called independent expenditure campaigns-almost all of which are something other than independent. That latter point is something that must be taken very seriously by observers of the Council.

I hope and expect that City Councilmembers have the guts to say that you get elected to make tough decisions, not merely to perpetuate your term in office. If you take that approach, you do the right thing and say, "the potential impact of independent expenditure campaigns be damned."

What's the role of the state re: the billboard industry? And what role does the industry play in affecting legislation?

The industry in Sacramento has always been very strong. You can see that by comparing the different ways that jurisdictions around the country have treated billboards. There are states like Vermont in which billboards are banned altogether. And then there are states like California where it's almost impossible for a jurisdiction to afford to take billboards down. That's a testament to the horsepower that the billboard industry has in Sacramento. And I don't see meaningful momentum in Sacramento to change that.

Give us your prediction of the likelihood of passage of the billboard ordinances currently being debated.

Jack Weiss' proposal has passed and will be implemented. This is a necessary, but not a sufficient step in the right direction.

I also believe that a divided City Council will ultimately support putting Cindy's proposal or some close variant of it on the ballot. If it comes to the ballot the billboard companies will launch a ferocious campaign against it, but it will win.

In the meantime, I'm actually hoping to play some small role in elevating the issues that surround the freeway swapping motion. With the right political dynamic, I believe that it could be put on the back burner.

The bottom line is we need something with teeth. And we need a new pool of funds with which to do implement sound proposals. Despite its importance, billboard regulation should in no way be in competition for the same scarce dollars that fund this city's vital fire, life and safety services.

Let's wrap this up with a quote from your last TPR interview in May 2000. In it you said the following re: the effects of term limits, "When you lose continuity, you end up vesting more power in lobbyists and bureaucrats." Is that in part what the current debacle is really about?Have electeds lost the ability to independently institutionalize good public policy?

Our new electeds must realize that the most serious problems in the city are not solved by a press conference, a 30-second sound bite or three minutes of action. These problems take months, sometimes years, of behind the scenes work to be contended with effectively. Our current system of politics and the way the media covers politics in Los Angeles unfortunately places a premium on the former to the detriment of the latter.

All those factors are causing a lack of continuity in City Hall that is paralyzing forward motion and impeding the best interests of residents throughout L.A. This is a major problem. Term limits have exacerbated it. And the absence of institutional memory has slowed progress on many an item, including billboard issues.

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