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Sign Fee Is Fair and Needed

October 28, 2002

The corporate conglomerates whose billboards have turned so many Los Angeles streets into eyesores are whining that the City Council has violated their civil rights. Hardly.

It seems that the annual inspection fee the City Council finally approved last summer strikes these companies as just so unfair. The fee will pay for the extra inspectors the city badly needs to figure out which of the 10,000 billboards across the city sprang up overnight, without a city permit, and get them removed. No one knows how many of these illegal signs are there -- estimates put the number at 4,000. For neighbors who live in the shadow of one of these hulking, illegal signs, even one is too many.

And the onerous fee? We're talking $314 for a billboard that can rake in as much as $100,000 a year. Compare that with the $100 that city residents have to pay every year to license a dog if it's not spayed or neutered.

The city ordinance applies only to so-called off-site signs, those giant billboards erected on a steel pole. It does not apply to the sign on top of the video rental store advertising new releases; in "cityspeak," these are called on-site signs. The billboard advocates call this distinction unconstitutional, or in legal parlance, "discriminatory treatment based solely on the content of the message." This argument is quite a stretch, even for the 1st Amendment.

Today lawyers from the city attorney's office are scheduled to face off in federal court against the high-powered corporate law firm representing Clear Channel Outdoor, Viacom Outdoor and National Advertising. The three companies are asking the judge to impose a temporary restraining order barring the city from collecting its $314 a sign, which was due Oct. 1. We hope the judge can keep a straight face and tell the billboard companies to quit griping and start paying up.

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