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Council Members Urge Probe Into Deaths of City Palm Trees in Front of Billboards

October 26, 2005|Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writer

Three Los Angeles City Council members called Tuesday for the city attorney's office to investigate the deaths of three city-owned palm trees in front of billboards owned by Regency Outdoor Advertising near Los Angeles International Airport.

The members also asked city sign inspectors to see if any Regency billboards are illegally placed and to "immediately implement" a long-stalled city program to inventory about 10,000 billboards in Los Angeles, about a third of which are believed by some city officials to be illegal.

The sign inventory program, which would be paid for by billboard companies, has been stalled since the City Council approved it in 2002 because of court challenges by several of the firms.

Councilman Jack Weiss, the program's sponsor, said Tuesday that he saw an opportunity to remind city government of the stalled effort in the wake of a Times article Sunday about Regency.

The article examined allegations that Regency had attempted to erect signs without permits in other jurisdictions, bribed public officials and poisoned city-owned trees that were obstructing motorists' views of some of the company's more lucrative signs along Century Boulevard.

Regency, the largest family-owned billboard company in Southern California, has denied all wrongdoing. A lawyer for the firm did not return a call seeking additional comment Tuesday.

A written motion made by Weiss, seconded by council members Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, cited the article and said Regency's alleged misconduct was "stunning in its scope."

"If the allegations in the Los Angeles Times are accurate and if this alleged misconduct is left unchecked, it could call into question the seriousness with which the city takes its sign regulations and laws," the motion said.

The billboard inspection program was intended to build the first city database of billboards. Because of inadequate record-keeping over the years, city officials are now unable to say which billboards have proper permits.

Weiss' motion was referred to committee. The motion also asks the city attorney's office to sue if it finds evidence of wrongdoing.

A spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said he had not seen the motion and declined to comment.

Many of the allegations involving Regency were made by a former executive and the firm's former chief outside lawyer. The former executive, J. Keith Stephens, has testified in a deposition in a lawsuit he brought against the company that the firm's owners, Brian and Drake Kennedy, each told him that Regency was responsible for poisoning trees that were in front of its signs near the entrance to LAX.

Regency has about 500 sign faces in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Dozens of those billboards are within Los Angeles, where Regency has been heavily involved in local politics.

In 2001, it was the largest contributor to former Mayor James K. Hahn's campaign, providing $260,000 in free billboard advertising to promote his candidacy. Regency also contributed $125,000 in free advertising in 2001 to Delgadillo's campaign, making the firm his second largest contributor.

One clash with the city came after Regency spent nearly $2 million in 1998 to purchase and improve a multistory brick building along the San Bernardino Freeway just south of downtown that had been home to garment factories and other small businesses.

After the tenants departed, Regency bricked up the building's entrances and hung a giant vinyl wall sign on the east side of the structure and painted an advertisement on the west.

City building and safety inspectors soon cited Regency for putting up the signs without permits.

Regency argued that the building had a long history of bearing signs and, as support, found an old permit for advertising on the west wall.

An argument continued about the vinyl on the east wall. Drake Kennedy took the sign down while he appealed a citation from building inspectors to the city's Building and Safety Commission. When he lost his appeal, he put the sign back up. The city attorney's office charged him with a misdemeanor. City building inspectors cited Regency for allegedly maintaining illegal wall signs at five other locations.

Regency then sued in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of aspects of the city's sign law.

The court enjoined the city from enforcing the law against Regency at more than two dozen locations, including the San Pedro Street building.

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