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Firm Offers to Promote City : Pomona Warily Accepts Free Billboard Space

May 19, 1988|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

POMONA — Giving away free advertising on a billboard is not as easy as one might think. At least that's what a Los Angeles-based outdoor advertising firm discovered this week.

After a lengthy debate Monday night, the City Council voted, 3 to 1 with one abstention, to accept an offer from Patrick Media Group to give Pomona free use of two of the firm's billboards to promote investment in the city. The promotional messages are expected to be posted on the billboards during the next three months and to remain up for one month each.

Councilwoman Nell Soto had urged her colleagues to embrace the proposal by Mary Cervantes, public affairs representative for the company, to place the slogan "Invest in the Future of Pomona" on a few of its billboards. Soto said the signs could help attract investors and developers who find themselves stymied by slow-growth movements in other cities.

"Pomona is a fine city," Soto said. "And it's a city that other people should know about to come in and help us with our growth."

However, City Atty. Patrick Samson advised the council to view the proposal warily.

Cites Lawsuit

"I am confident that the offer of Patrick Media is not altogether altruistic," Samson said, citing a lawsuit brought against the city in 1973 by several billboard companies.

The suit, which challenges a stringent sign ordinance passed by the city in 1964, has remained unresolved because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision and changes in state law that restrict the power of cities to order the removal of billboards, Samson said. The city attorney warned that the firm might be seeking an avenue to increase the number of billboards in Pomona.

Councilman E. J. (Jay) Gaulding initially opposed the arrangement, arguing that Pomona residents have repeatedly expressed their opposition to more billboards in the city. Mayor Donna Smith said she also could not accept the offer because to do so might "jeopardize the litigation."

"We know we can't put any new billboards in the city of Pomona," Cervantes said later in an interview. "We were offering a public service."

Wary of Endorsement

"This is a very generous offer," Smith told Cervantes at the meeting, adding that the company was free to advertise the virtues of Pomona--or anything else--on its boards, but should not expect the city's endorsement. "Coming for our approval might suggest that we're saying it's OK to advertise on billboards. . . . I think we might be buying ourselves a loss in court."

Their skepticism angered Soto.

"I think it's ludicrous that we're sitting up here arguing about whether to accept a free offer," said Soto, reminding Gaulding that Patrick Media would not be erecting any new billboards in Pomona.

Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant added: "When you look a gift horse in the mouth, no one's going to give you any horses."

Gaulding eventually changed his mind after Bryant reminded him that the city attorney, although dubious of the firm's motives, had determined that accepting the offer would "in all probability not significantly affect the pending litigation."

Banned Near Freeways

Councilman Mark Nymeyer said he would accept the offer if the Pomona ads could be posted on billboards that are visible from local freeways. However, Samson noted that the city's sign ordinance prohibits billboards next to freeways. Nymeyer abstained on a second vote that gave Patrick Media discretion on the billboards' location.

Cervantes said her firm would like to follow Nymeyer's recommendation to place the billboards outside the city along freeways leading into it.

"I think that is a very good suggestion, but it will depend on what space is available," Cervantes said.

And as the council debated whether to accept the billboard offer, merchant Robert Doms questioned whether the sign's message might be targeting a minuscule market.

"If we're going to have billboards, the number of large investors may not be that great," Doms said. The signs should be targeted at the multitudes of potential shoppers, not a handful of developers, he said. At Doms' suggestion, the council voted to have the billboard slogan revised so that it would invite passing motorists to invest--or shop--in Pomona.

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