GUEST COMMENTARY - Four "Carmen Trutanich" billboards on Ventura Boulevard caught the attention of the blogs then the press this week. The billboards at 12522-12528 Ventura Blvd. currently advertise "Carmen Trutanich City Attorney," and have done so for over 2 years, ever since Trutanich left his campaign headquarters there and took up residence at City Hall.
Questions about the legality of Trutanich's billboards led to responses from Trutanich and the Dept. of Building and Safety suggesting there's one rule for Trutanich, but a different rule for everyone else.
Ironically, it was precisely that sort of "exception" mentality that led to the out of control billboard blight bonanza that Trutanich demonized during his campaign.
Trutanich’s solution to billboard blight was to pass a new law which bans issuing new permits for “off-site” adverts. A billboard is, generally, an “off-site” advert; it advertises something occurring at another location such as advertising Toyota cars at AEG's LA Live where no car sales take place.
Off-site advertising is highly lucrative; Toyota pays a lot of money to AEG to be able to advertise its products at LA Live, Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks SKG are believed to have agreed to pay over a half a million dollars a month to advertise their "How to train your dragon” movie on an office building next to the Oscars ceremony.
So what is the fuss all about? The Los Angeles Dragnet, an activist blog with an undeniable animus towards Trutanich, suggested that as Trutanich's office was no longer on Ventura Blvd., his billboards were "off-site" adverts and therefore in violation of Trutanich's own new law.
The Los Angeles Metropolitan News Enterprise contacted Trutanich regarding the alleged violation, but the City Attorney himself apparently was not available for comment. Instead, a Trutanich deputy said “the determination of the signs’ legality is not one that is made by his office” and that the City Attorney’s Office would “defer to any other department or office to make that decision.”
Those are really strange statements because in the past the City Attorney’s Office has not been shy to condemn illegal signs - few can forget Trutanich grabbing national headlines for throwing Los Angeles businessman Kayvan Setareh in jail on $1M bail for daring to place a supergraphic billboard on his office building during the Oscars ceremony in 2010.
Equally, when AEG sought permits for billboards at their new Regency Cinema at LA Live, it was Trutanich who threatened to arrest Councilmember Jan Perry and Building and Safety officials who agreed to issue the permits. The City Attorney, clearly, was not willing to “defer” to anyone who disagreed with his “determination of the signs’ legality.”
Frankly, it is as ridiculous for the City Attorney’s Office to suggest that they do not determine the legality of billboards as it is to suggest they do not determine the legality of any other alleged violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code; that is surely one of the core functions of the City Attorney’s Office.
What makes the Trutanich deputy’s statement even more incredulous is that at the very same time that statement was made, Trutanich himself released a statement condemning the City of Santa Monica’s plans to install digital billboards on their buses. That would seem to be a “determination of the signs’ legality.”
But if the contradictory statements of Trutanich and his deputy were not enough of a red flag that there is something of a double standard concerning Trutanich’s own billboards and those of his political targets, the statements of City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety Inspector Luke Zamparini were even more duplicitous.
Zamparini told the Met News that he had “viewed pictures of the signs through Google Maps, and said he did not consider them to be illegal offsite advertising.”
Perhaps the most bizarre portion of Zamparini’s statement was that he was basing his decision on pictures from Google Maps.
According to Zamparini, he saw “a vinyl sign that’s just stuck up there like a “Grand Opening or Going Out of Business sign occasionally used by businesses.” Of course he could have looked at the photos published on the Dragnet, but even looking at the pictures on Google Maps, Trutanich’s billboards do not look anything like vinyl signs.
Let us not forget that if Trutanich succeeds in forcing his ACE Program through Council, the Building and Safety Dept. will be the lead agency issuing revenue generating “Administrative Citations.”
Is Zamparini’s woefully inaccurate and inadequate investigation of Trutanich’s billboards a preview of the kind of evidence that will be used to issue those money-making citations? Or is it a case of Zamparini simply closing ranks and being unwilling to apply the law equally when Trutanich’s billboards are questioned?
But beyond the issue of any favoritism towards Trutanich, Zamparini made statements that completely contradict the law as it has been applied to others. A “temporary sign like that doesn’t require a permit,” Zamparini said. Really? That will come as welcome news to World Wide Rush, CBS Outdoors and any number of other billboard bandits who can now simply claim the “Zamparini temporary sign defense.”
Of course, the Zamparini defense wasn’t available to Kayvan Setareh was it? That “How to train your dragon” sign was only intended to be displayed during Oscars week. Not temporary enough, yet Trutanich’s temporary billboards have been displayed for over 2 years and are just fine according to Zamparini.
In fairness, Zamparini did say that Trutanich’s billboards “can’t stay up forever,” but he did not indicate how much more than 2 years is “forever.”
Perhaps the only rational comment on the issue comes from Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. He told the Met News that “he thought the signs should be taken down since the ’09 election was two years ago,” and he is “in favor of enforcing the laws that are out there … across the board.”
The billboard industry is a billion dollar a year money maker both for those who follow the rules and for those who break them. Zamparini’s and Trutanich’s statements will surely be used by those who want to break the rules and bring back the billboard blight that Los Angelenos thought was finally under control.
It is beyond ironic that it could be Trutanich’s own vanity and blatant hypocrisy that could be used to undermine the efforts that have been made to regulate this industry.
(David Berger is a former City Attorney candidate, former Special Assistant Deputy City Attorney to Carmen Trutanich, and currently a Deputy District Attorney. The writer’s comments are personal and not intended to be indicative of any policy or position by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.) Photo Credit: Los Angles Dragnet. –cw
“Trutanich’s Billboard Blunder”
Los Angeles Dragnet, August 24, 2011
“Leftover Trutanich Signs Not Illegal Advertisements, Officials Say”
Los Angeles Metropolitan News, August 26, 2011
“Trutanich to Santa Monica: Your Buses with Digital Ads Aren’t Welcome in L.A.”
Ban Billboard Blight, August 25, 2011
“City Attorney Enforces Ordinance On Illegal Supergraphics”
Los Angeles City Attorney Website, March 23, 2010
“Businessman Held on $1 Million Bail in Supergraphic Case”
Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2010
“Council Chastises City Attorney, Supports Signage for L.A. Live's Regal Cinemas”
Blog DownTown, October 23, 2009
Vol 9 Issue 69
Pub: Aug 30, 2011