NORWALK — Su-prise, SU-prise, SU-PRISE! Look whose names are up in lights.
Yep, right there, 67 feet high, in big block letters, alongside the 605 Freeway, it's the Norwalk City Council. Ask the members what their names are doing way up on that big board on Alondra Boulevard, and they say they are just as surprised as everyone else.
Mayor Bob White, who's running for Assembly and who gets top billing, says he was tooling south on the freeway when he first saw the red, white and blue advertisement.
"I was shocked," said the down-home politician. "Heck, I'm just a country boy and that kind of thing is a bit overwhelming. Who should I thank?"
His name is Brian Kennedy, vice president of Regency Outdoor Advertising Co., a small Los Angeles-based firm.
Just wanted to be neighborly is how Kennedy sums up his gesture. He decided to give the council--and the city--a plug after the council overruled the Planning Commission and gave Regency the go-ahead in mid-March to erect two new billboards in Norwalk. Besides the one on Alondra, the firm put one on Firestone Boulevard, just west of the 605.
"I wanted to do something for this city," Kennedy said in a telephone interview, "because it's growing and ambitious and people should be aware of it."
So up went a short message and the names of the council members on both sides of the Alondra billboard at no charge to the city.
Motorists northbound on the 605 are welcomed to the city, while those headed south on the freeway are told, "Thank you for Visiting Norwalk."
Earlier this year, the Planning Commission rejected Regency's billboard bid, saying the boards were too tall and might conflict with other signs in the area, according to Don Rouly, the city's planning and development director. But on appeal to the council, the company won. Council members argued that the billboards are "clean-looking" and pose no threat to anyone's view.
Besides, Regency representatives told the council they could use the billboards on occasion to promote community events.
But the company's first stab at a community service announcement has raised an eyebrow or two.
"Sure, they said we use the space for city events," said City Manager Richard Streng. "But is (putting the) council up there a community event? . . . Ask Regency, they're handling it."
One council member, Grace Napolitano, said she does not "particularly care for" the billboard.
"What about a message about crime fighting or senior citizens or beautifying the city?" she said. "Who benefits from seeing our names up there?"
The council members' names first appeared on the billboard about a week before the June 3 primary.
Mayor White, whose name on the billboard is twice the size of the other four council members', was a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 63rd Assembly District. White acknowledges that the billboard may have helped land a few votes on the way to an easy win. But he contends that the timing of the billboard had nothing to do with his candidacy, although he said Regency contributed $500 to his campaign.
Said Kennedy about the billboard and the contribution: "We give to a lot of candidates. A lot of billboard companies do. My motivation was to do something nice for the city. Politics had nothing to do with it."
White said it was "just my luck" that his name appeared at election time. He added, "I only wish it would stay up through November" when he goes against incumbent Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk) for the Assembly seat.
Unfortunately for White, the billboard comes down later this month, as soon as Kennedy finds a paying customer. The going rate for a billboard that size is about $2,300 a month.
"You know, I've been in politics for 18 years, and I've never had a sign that big," White said. "Kinda makes you feel proud."
Like White, other council members said they knew nothing of the billboard before it appeared.
"From what I hear, it's pretty impressive," said Councilman Marciel (Rod) Rodriguez, who claims he has not seen the advertisement yet. Then, taking a page from White, Rodriguez said, "You gotta remember, I'm just a farm boy born and raised in Norwalk, so appearing on a billboard is big time."