On a warm afternoon last October, Woodland Hills resident Richard Linder carefully printed "House for Rent" on six pieces of 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper, stuffed a box of thumb tacksin his pocket and drove around Van Nuys pinning the sheets on telephone poles.
Last week, a stunned Linder discovered that the mundane task would cost him $194.20. "Your signs have been illegally posted," stated a city letter, which ordered the 63-year-old contractor to pay a high price for creating "blighted conditions" in his community.
"I'm shocked. I'm just a little guy trying to rent a house," Linder said. "I freely admit I hung the signs. But this seems like a severe penalty for tacking a sign on a pole."
Linder is among 528 Los Angeles residents who have received the first batch of costly bills from the Los Angeles Department of Public Works as part of an aggressive new law-enforcement program in which city crews are tearing away illegally posted signs and billing offenders for the removal service.
The days of stapling, nailing and taping everything from "Garage Sale," "For Sale" and even "Lost Dog" signs on telephone and street lights poles are over, public works officials said. The city aims to slap heavy fees on lawbreakers--homeowners, big developers and entrepreneurs alike--to deter them from what has long been a widespread practice.
"You can no longer use public property as a free form of advertising," said Patrick D. Howard, director of the Public Works Department's Bureau of Street Maintenance. "This type of blight is offensive to a vast majority of the population. It is visual pollution. Our goal is to stop it."
The tough law, approved by the City Council last August, was born out of vehement complaints from homeowners who scorn the multitude of real estate and other signs that clutter city streets. At times over the last three years, anger has reached such heights that self-proclaimed "sign vigilantes" roved streets ripping down outlaw posters to protest weak city sign ordinances.
Although tacking signs on public property has been a misdemeanor offense for more than 40 years, city officials had to actually catch an offender in the act to bring charges. Only a handful of violators had been prosecuted in the last few years, officials said.
There are about half a million illegally posted signs citywide on any given day, an estimate reached by a sample survey of busy thoroughfares, street maintenance officials said.
The new law, introduced by Councilman Hal Bernson, assumes that the person benefiting from the sign can be held responsible to pay the cost for its removal.
So, in Linder's case, as well as in scores of others from dance hall operators to religious organizations, 16 city work crews have torn and peeled away their signs, tracked down the owners and billed them for the cost of the removal job. Officials said the law applies equally to political candidates who post election placards.
The first sign, regardless of its size, costs $190.40 to remove, an amount calculated by city accountants who tabulated the cost of a two-man crew, their new van, equipment and staff time to find the offender. Each additional sign costs $1.60 to remove because the crew is already on the job.
Those who use glue to paste up signs will be charged $48.50 for each additional removal because it takes crews longer to scrape the paper away with a chemical solution.
A two-person crew dons hard hats, gloves and goggles to remove up to 300 signs a day. And the work can be dangerous.
"All these staples and nails can come popping out at you," said Juan Reyes, 30, of Arleta, who often uses a shovel or crowbar to pry off stubborn nailed-in posters.
The workers take a Polaroid camera snapshot of the illegal posters for evidence and write down the information such as names, addresses and phone numbers on the sign. This is turned over to an inspector who tracks down and then bills the owner.
In the first Dec. 15 billing, the city has charged offenders a total of $119,108 for their misdeeds. Officials hope to collect more than $600,000 in fines this year to pay for the cost of running the program. So far, only $1,847 has been paid. Misdemeanor criminal charges may be filed against those who fail to pay within 30 days, Howard said.
Many incensed residents claim that they did not know the law was in place and have demanded first-offender leniency.
Surely, said Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin of Chabad House in North Hollywood and West Los Angeles, the city will not charge his charitable organization $408 for posting dozens of "L'chayim to Life" telethon posters around town. "I intend to come to the hearing and bring the 1,000 posters we did not hang to show them since we became aware of the illegality of this," Cunin said. "We are a charitable organization that helps the homeless. We hope the city will be very kind to us and waive the fees."