How many billboards?

“Visual Rights to the City” Panel

Mar 25 2010

Last night’s panel, “Visual Rights to the City,” held at the downtown Central Library laid out some of the legal and logistical problems polarizing the billboard debates in LA that have pitted powerful, profit-driven billboard advertising companies against an often angry citizenry and typically dysfunctional municipal government for the past decade. The panel, awkwardly moderated by Anne Bray of Freewaves, consisted of Christine Pelisek, who has reported extensively on the billboard issue for the LA Weekly; John Tehranian, an attorney who clarified the sensitive legal issues involved; Rick Robinson, the general manager of MacDonald Media (an advertising man for billboard companies); and Toby Miller, Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at UC Riverside.

Pelisek was the first to speak, introducing a brief history of the city’s ongoing billboard debate. Los Angeles’s city government started to pay attention to the unregulated billboards proliferating around town in 2001. It was then that, for the first time, they conducted a count of the billboards in the city and came up with some preliminary numbers: there were 11,000 billboards in the city, 4,000 of which were illegal (without permits). (Nine years later, a full, current, and accurate inventory of legal and illegal billboards is still not complete.) Following their initial findings, the city issued a moratorium on new billboards and an inspection fee charged to the companies, who in turn promptly sued the city on whatever trumped up claims, probably including their free speech rights. This brings up a central, endemic, insoluble logical flaw to all the legal debates that have followed: unfortunately, due to a rather arbitrary and suspect, but since enshrined, argument by the Supreme Court in the late 19th century, corporations are viewed legally as individuals (this in itself seems logically unsound and deeply problematic) who have free speech rights, including commercial speech (commercial advertisements=free speech?!), which were protected in a 1976 Supreme Court ruling and again drastically and abominably further supported in last year’s “Citizens United” case in which the court removed limits on corporate donations to political campaigns.

Anyway, back to the billboard companies suing the city (their preferred ongoing pastime)… A joke of a settlement was reached between the companies and Rocky Delgadillo that basically let the billboard companies off the hook, even allowing them substantial growth, new technological billboards (supergraphics and digital billboards), and reducing the already tiny inspection fee proposed to a laughable pittance. (Apparently Delgadillo got a huge amount of billboard space for political purposes donated around this time. Maybe I misheard, I hope I did, it was not made clear, but certainly would imply serious corruption. The number $400,000 was thrown around. What?!) This mismanaged settlement has crippled the city’s abilities to regulate billboard companies ever since… You can begin to see how quickly any city undertaking, even with ostensibly good intentions, devolves into a bungled mess.

Costly litigation continues, progress is forever stalled on this (what should be) a rather mundane issue. It’s billboards, not rocket science, as my grandmother would say. Rick Robinson (corporate ad man) pointed out that the city of West Hollywood is a very good model for how to go about this because it has elegantly managed to create clear, workable laws and regulations concerning billboard placement and, in the process, has found ways for the city to benefit financially through fees or taxes in the process. Again, as happens far too often, one of the few things I walked away with is a disheartening confirmation of the city government’s abysmal ineptitude across the board. LA is a great city despite its government which is one of the worst-run, incompetent, ineffective bureaucracies anywhere.

That said, a couple other points of interest emerged from the panel: Toby Miller aptly pointed out that many people’s ambivalence towards the new contentious digital billboards and supergraphics are emblematic of much wider and unresolved ambivalence towards consumerism and crass commercialism in general. He also emphasized that, beyond their aggressive visual presence and whether or not they are aesthetically positive or negative additions, the digital LED billboards use significant amounts of energy and increase the city’s carbon footprint at a time when we are increasingly concerned with minimizing environmental impact of urban centers. An audience member brought up the issue that digital billboards, while of huge value to corporations who claim free speech rights in mounting them all over, very often have adverse effects on neighborhood residents by decreasing proximate property values. And, lastly, another reason to bemoan city incompetence came to the fore in discussing how the current moratorium on billboards includes a moratorium on murals in LA, which is known for and takes civic pride in its history of urban murals, because apparently it is too difficult to legally distinguish between an ad and a mural. This seems bizarre to me. Instead of getting caught up in the distraction of trying to define art (as panelists tried briefly to do), it seems like it would be fairly straightforward (and with ample precedent) to simple define and regulate advertisements as graphics/images that are selling products or services not physically for sale on the site of display. Done, right?

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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