Riders wait on a Wilshire Boulevard bus bench, one of the thousands that… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
These days, bus riders at stops around Los Angeles may find themselves without a bench to rest on.
City officials say the company that provides and manages roughly 6,000 bus benches began removing them last week because it was not awarded a new contract.
Norman Bench Advertising, which for more than a decade has maintained the benches in exchange for advertising revenue, has recently come under fire from officials for failing to disclose how many benches it has and how much money it reaps from displaying ads on them.
Board of Public Works Commissioner Andrea Alarcon said Thursday that the company has been "a difficult partner" and that benches have been removed from stops in at least three City Council districts.
Calls to William Giamela, the owner of the Canoga Park-based company, were not returned Thursday.
The city has moved forward with a contract that would give the job of managing its benches to a new company, Martin Outdoor Media. But that contract will not go to the council for approval until Tuesday, and Alarcon said it may be some time before the city is able to replace benches that have been removed.
If the contract is approved, the city may ask Martin Outdoor to install temporary wood-and-concrete benches while permanent steel replacements are constructed, Alarcon said.
In the meantime, she said, "It's the students, it's the elderly, it's the mothers that this is impacting."
Esperanza Martinez, an organizer with the Bus Riders Union, a grass-roots advocacy group, was alarmed by the news of benches being removed.
"That's horrible," she said. "When you think about how long people are forced to wait at a bus stop, having bus benches is absolutely necessary."
For many years, benches were installed by anyone who wanted to. But that system got out of control, with so many benches in some areas that they blocked sidewalks.
The city set up a permit system to control them and later gave one company — Norman Bench Advertising — exclusive rights.
The company pays the city $245,000 a year for the privilege and is supposed to also provide a percentage of its ad revenue, according to Alarcon.
But she said the city never received its full share of the revenue because the company didn't submit financial records.
Last week, at a Public Works Committee hearing, City Council members voted to approve the contract with Martin Outdoor Media. Alarcon said the city should have done more to enforce the agreement.
"Could we have done greater oversight?" she said. "Absolutely."
The proposed contract with Martin Outdoor Media calls for the company to pay the city more than $2.7 million over 10 years, plus a share of advertising revenue.
For now, crews from the Bureau of Street Services are fielding reports of missing bus benches and checking to make sure the areas where they were removed are safe. Alarcon said the city may consider legal action against Norman Bench Advertising.