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What Do the Lobbyists Want? Bigger, Brighter, More Signs

BILLBOARD WATCH - One of LA’s most influential business organizations calls the city’s ban on new billboards and other off-site signs a “detrimental regulation” and says the city council took a “step in the wrong direction” when it unanimously passed that ban almost 12 years ago.

One of LA’s largest law firms, with 22 registered lobbyists on its payroll, wants the city to allow full-motion video billboards, signs almost 50 per cent taller than currently allowed, and an unlimited number of new signs alongside freeways.

These are just some of things on “wish lists” communicated to the City Council’s PLUM committee by lobbying firms, sign companies, and business organizations as the committee continues to ponder successively weaker drafts of a new citywide sign ordinance. The latest, made public just two weeks ago, is scheduled for hearing on Oct. 18.

The aforementioned business organization, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, not only finds the off-site sign ban odious, it has this rationale for more signs: “The attraction of visitors to Los Angeles stems from its extravagant facade, which signage expansion is instrumental in sustaining and developing.” In other words, the purpose of the sign ordinance should be to increase tourism, so let’s get  make LA  look like such notable tourist destinations as Las Vegas and Times Square.

This dubious proposition comes from an organization that has no lobbyists registered with the City Ethics Commission even though its employees can be frequently seen in City Hall and its website touts its “aggressive advocacy efforts at local city halls” and its “regular presence at all levels of government…”

The law firm that wants bigger and brighter signs is Latham & Watkins, an international firm with 250 attorneys in its downtown LA office. It’s easy to understand why it could assign two of them to do a line-by-line rewrite of the draft sign ordinance, including a statement that the purpose of sign ordinance should include “encouraging entertainment, sports, cultural, and academic facilities.”

That might surprise some who believe the purpose of the sign ordinance is to control visual clutter, but it fits neatly with the fact that among Latham & Watkins clients are AEG, the owner of L.A. Live and Staples Center; the LA Dodgers; NBC Universal; and Loyola Marymount University. And, yes, that client list also includes the city’s largest billboard company, Clear Channel Outdoor.

With its stable of 22 registered lobbyists, Latham & Watkins reported spending almost $1 million in lobbying for the first six months of 2011. While the firm lobbies on projects and issues unrelated to the sign ordinance, it not only produced the detailed rewrite of the ordinance but sent four of those lobbyists to speak at the first PLUM committee hearing on the ordinance back in August. Suffice to say that significant resources were devoted to the effort, and that somebody expects to get  some bang for those bucks.

Latham & Watkins wants many other changes to sign ordinance, almost all conflicting with either the letter or spirit of the off-site sign ban approved in 2002 with widespread public support. The promise of that ban was that the city’s visual environment was going to be protected from new billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising, and that through attrition and other mechanisms, the amount of signage in the city was going to be gradually reduced.

Because of lawsuits and misguided policy decisions, that hasn’t happened. But the new sign ordinance approved in 2009 by the City Planning Commission actually revived that promise, by severely restricting places new signs could go up, and mandating the removal of existing signs in exchange for new ones.

The Valley Industry and Commerce Association and Latham & Watkins and others who are paid to prowl the corridors of city hall and buttonhole decision-makers have already corrupted the commission’s work, but they are obviously far from through. What they want, apparently, is to crumple that work up entirely and set it afire and watch it turn to ashes. Then all the big, bright, shiny new signs advertising banks and cars and alcoholic drinks and fast food can start spreading through our communities and bringing in those tourists and everybody–the lobbyists and their clients, that is–will be happy.

(Dennis Hathaway is President of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight and a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]) -cw

Tags: signs, VICA, Latham & Watkins, Ethics Commission, signs, sign ordinance

Vol 9 Issue 84
Pub: Oct 21, 2011