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Billboards--the Gift That Keeps on Giving Nothing

January 16, 2002|PATT MORRISON

I wavered over my newspaper for a long time the other morning, trying to figure out which tale jerked my chain harder:

My colleague Ann O'Neill's story about the billionaire's ex-wife wanting $320,000 a month in child support for one child.

Or my colleague Tina Daunt's story about a billionaire industry spreading millions in free political ads and campaign bucks around town in hopes of getting a civic blessing on its signs, which a fellow in Louisiana has called "litter on sticks."

In the end, the reason you're reading about one and not the other is this: The first story, dazzling though it is in its wretched excess, only really affects a billionaire foolish enough to beget a child at the age of 81, and a 36-year-old woman shameless enough to tell the world that she needs almost 4 million dollars a year to raise one child.

The second story hits millions of us every day, but enriches at most perhaps two dozen officials foolish or shameless enough to give away the store, even though it happens to be ours.

In the two-mile drive from my home to the freeway, I saw 29 billboards this morning. Mine is not a flossy part of town--I doubt that the billionaire daddy has so much as thumbed my page in the Thomas Bros. guide--and most of these billboards, in Spanish or English, flog soda pop, money-grams to Mexico, bus travel and cemetery services. Sometimes, they push the booze and nicotine that they haven't been allowed to sell on TV. Sometimes, they tell us not to smoke and not to drive drunk, but I suspect that's only when the soda-pop companies don't buy the space.

Your way to work must take you past some of the city's other 9,671 or so billboards. But only about a score or so of us--City Council members, the city attorney and the mayor--get much good out of them.

And what goods! Last year, multinational billboard firms gave about a million dollar and millions of square feet of free billboard space to candidates, among them James Hahn, who got elected mayor, and Rocky Delgadillo, who got elected city attorney.

We'll soon find out whether that romancing gets the companies to second base. After a yearlong ban on new billboards, the City Council votes this spring on a law that would topple 1,400 billboards around town (hurrah!) and allow 70 new monster billboards along freeways instead (hmm).

Because one freeway billboard can scare up 10 times the trade of a sign in my neighborhood, the firms would love to swap--and to add a wink to that smile, they may be trading away illegal billboards that shouldn't be up anyway. What's to lose?

If a lobbyist named Ken Spiker Jr. can persuade L.A. to let down the barriers to freeway billboards, he gets a bonus, as much as a million dollars (That's only three months' child support to a billionaire, but to me, and probably to Ken, it's handsome dough). What makes his job a little easier is that he has a hall pass as the industry's guy on--I love this part--a committee that reviews the city's sign law and recommends changes!

And what do the rest of us get out of this? Nada. Not a red cent, not a thin dime, not one Yankee dollar.

There's a "onetime fee" when a billboard first goes up, but after that, they're home-free. And because some signs may have been standing since before the advent of color TV, by default this could amount to a nice little civic charity for billboard companies.

There are states--Hawaii, Vermont, Oregon--that have no billboards, and make that part of their tourist allure. There are cities and counties that charge fees for the "litter on sticks." One region in South Carolina took in nearly a million a year on billboard property taxes and fees. Is L.A., cradle of the fortune cookie and the drive-in churches, less bold and inventive than the home state of Strom Thurmond?

In the 1980s, some businessmen named their mini-mall development company "La Mancha," which they thought was Spanish for "the impossible dream." It really means "the spot," like a stain, which the city decided mini-malls were, and laid a moratorium on them.

Now one man's blot can be another man's free speech. The billboards won't go away. But because they won't, all Angelenos should get something out of them, without having to run for office.

The City Council votes today on Councilman Jack Weiss' proposal to stop illegal billboards by requiring a bar code on each legit sign and getting rid of the rest. I like that, but don't stop there. A bar code could signal an expiration date too: "It's January, time to write that check for your annual billboard fee."

Otherwise, maybe we can put our own billboards around City Hall, Burma-Shave style:

"It's City Hall/

So come on in/

Lobbyists welcome/

Residents skinned."

--Urban shave


Patt Morrison's column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is

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