I had just finished talking to the mayor about the city's annoying billboards -- asking if he intends to do anything about them -- when I turned to a couple of his aides with a question:
Are there still roughly 4,000 illegal billboards out there?
"Probably more," said Matt Szabo, who serves as Antonio Villaraigosa's communications director.
You almost have to slap yourself in conversations about L.A.'s advertising orgy. Nothing sounds quite real. But you can't slap away these facts:
More than one-third of the 11,000 billboards polluting the city were illegally erected.
Nobody seems to know when / how / if anyone can do anything about it.
Roughly 900 billboards across the city could soon be converted from conventional to Blade Runner digital, lighting up your street or bedroom with a 50,000-watt flash. That's because city officials have caved in to a powerful billboard industry that loves making campaign donations to certain people.
And, judging by the reaction to my Sunday column on the subject, the natives are restless.
"What an eyesore!" wrote West Los Angeles resident Robert Nellis. From his home, he has a great view of a new digital billboard on Barrington Avenue, with its "bright lights changing like a Vegas show."
"I already am beginning to feel as if I am living in some degraded future-world with video screens everywhere assaulting me with propaganda," wrote Jerry Treiman of Woodland Hills.
Many readers wondered how a billboard could be converted from paper to plasma -- changing the character of an entire neighborhood -- without any notification or neighborhood hearing.
Fair question; easy answer.
In 2006, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo settled a lawsuit by, among other things, offering the billboard industry the right to convert those nearly 900 billboards to digital. Delgadillo, who had received nearly $500,000 worth of free advertising from the industry during his campaign for office, took the deal to the City Council and mayor, and they unanimously approved it.
Local public officials have let billboard companies have their way so often, it's now difficult to legally enforce the city's own rules and regulations.
Last week, Councilman Jack Weiss' office wanted records of planned digital conversions in his district, so he could try to prevent some of them if neighbors objected.
Sounds simple enough, right?
As of Tuesday afternoon, Weiss' office was still trying to get all the records it wanted from the Building and Safety Department but was told some information was not available under orders from the city attorney's office. The city attorney's office, meanwhile, disputed this, saying there was no attempt to withhold information.
And so it goes. By the time you wade through that bureaucratic bog, a dozen more digital conversions have taken place.
Weiss' office is pushing environmental review for impacts on traffic and aesthetics before digital conversions are allowed. And the American Institute of Architects has fired off a letter to the city planning director and the Planning Commission, urging a moratorium on digital conversions while the impacts are studied.
"Let's take a pause and rethink this whole thing," AIA president Martha Welborne told me. "I think the fundamental concern really is visual blight and safety and hazard issues for drivers."
While we're in that pause, can anyone explain why, in the year 2008, the city is too inept to compile a publicly accessible database of all 11,000 billboards, complete with details on which ones are illegal and which ones are scheduled for digital conversions? As for the illegal ones, is there any reason the city can't begin uprooting them by sundown tonight and billing the owners for the cost?
On Monday morning I went to see the mayor and find out where he comes down on all of this. He is, after all, the guy who wanted to beautify Los Angeles and be known as the green mayor.
Signing off on 900 digital conversions would seem to be at odds with those goals. We may soon be burning enough coal and throwing off enough light for L.A. to be seen from distant galaxies.
Moments after completing a news conference on spaying and neutering, which seems to me an appropriate way to handle the teams of lawyers representing the billboard companies, Mayor Villaraigosa told me he agrees that digital conversions are entirely out of character in some neighborhoods.
Then why did he approve the deal in 2006?
"It was on the advice of the city attorney," he said. "He made a strong case for it."
Yeah, so I've heard. But the job of a mayor or council member is not to rubber stamp recommendations from the city attorney, it's to challenge them.
Villaraigosa, who supported gargantuan digital signage at the Convention Center, said it's more appropriate there and in commercial Hollywood. But not in Silver Lake, or Mount Washington, or Highland Park, to name just a few places.
"It may be that in some places, there's a safety hazard," he said, meaning the flashing digital signs could be a distraction for drivers.