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Blight With Deep Pockets

January 27, 2002

It shouldn't be so hard to stop the mad--often illegal--rush to put billboards on every available corner in Los Angeles. Given a magic billboard-disappearing wand, most residents would know what to do with it. The exceptions might be some of the members of the City Council.

Last week Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski introduced a motion to permanently ban new billboards and to move against the thousands of illegal signs around town. City Hall insiders give her proposal long odds in the 15-member council, mostly because the billboard companies have been generous campaign contributors in many local races.

Miscikowski's motion would make permanent the city's temporary moratorium on new signs unless neighborhoods, like sections of Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, are part of a special billboard-permit district. Her motion would also impose an annual tax on each existing sign. Currently, the companies pay only a one-time fee when the billboard goes up, while even dog owners pay yearly licensing. And dogs, unlike billboards, don't usually generate $50,000 a month or more for their owners.

The new billboard funds would hire additional city inspectors. There are now just four to police the nearly 10,000 billboards, making timely action against the estimated 4,000 illegal signs nearly hopeless. Inspectors are often outmaneuvered by billboard company lawyers on the rare occasions the city brings action against an illegal sign.

City voters would have to ratify the billboard tax, which Miscikowski hopes will be on the November ballot. The council proposal is unrelated to the squabble in West Hollywood between the developer of a large Sunset Strip project who plans billboards on his property and a large billboard company that is financing "grass-roots" opposition to this potential business competitor. That battle is small potatoes compared with the stakes in L.A.

Five of Miscikowski's 14 colleagues, all council newcomers, already stand with her. Another group, led by Mark Ridley-Thomas, still backs the proposal that the previous council passed last year. That plan, strongly endorsed by the advertisers themselves, would allow dozens of lucrative new billboards to go up along local freeways. In return, the industry would promise to remove possibly 1,400 less profitable signs along city streets.

Ridley-Thomas' measure hasn't come to a vote in large part because ordinance drafters are struggling to define a formula for the exchange that does more than just reward the industry for ditching small, low-profit signs.

Miscikowski's plan is simpler and better for the city. The revenue generated by the tax she proposes would enable the city to finally identify and remove the illegal signs that trash city streets. No behemoth signs would go up beside the freeways.

The council could take up Miscikowski's billboard ban next month. Members who care about how the city looks, and about their independence from a powerful special interest, will vote for it.

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