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L.A. official urges billboard firms to turn off digital signs

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who is running for reelection, says he is seeking court direction on 'unwinding' a controversial city agreement that permitted some digital signs.

March 21, 2013|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • A digital billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard shines brightly near a home in the Comstock Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
A digital billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard shines brightly near a home… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

With a legal filing and a sidewalk news conference on the Westside, Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich on Thursday called on two major billboard companies to turn off more than 100 digital signs, citing a court order and exhausted appeals.

"The courts have spoken," Trutanich told reporters near a Clear Channel Outdoor digital sign at Santa Monica and Sepulveda boulevards.

Trutanich said he was seeking court direction on "unwinding" a controversial city agreement that previously permitted some digital signs. He left open the possibility that the signs would be allowed in the future, under a "transparent path for authorizing digital billboards … that gives residents and all companies a fair stake in the process."

His remarks came as Trutanich seeks reelection and on the same day he filed court papers seeking guidance on how to proceed in a long-running fight over electronic signs, which some neighborhood groups say have become a nuisance.

In December, an appeals court invalidated digital sign permits issued in a 2006 agreement reached under then-City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. The deal allowed Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor to convert some signs to electronic billboards, which had been banned under the city's sign ordinance. Summit Media, a firm not included in the agreement, sued to overturn the arrangement, calling it a sweetheart deal with no legal basis.

A trial court and an appeals court sided with Summit. Clear Channel subsequently threatened to sue the city for more than $100 million if it was forced to turn off its billboards without being compensated for income losses.

The billboard industry and the city have formed an ad-hoc group to draft new sign regulations. Trutanich's office hasn't been involved in the effort, a working group representative said.

Billboards have become a campaign issue for Trutanich and his challenger, former lawmaker Mike Feuer. Trutanich has touted his efforts to stop illegal signs, while Feuer has said problems such as gun violence and deteriorating neighborhoods are a higher priority.

But both candidates agree that the 2006 agreement was inappropriate and that the electronic signs it allowed should come down.

After Trutanich's news conference, Feuer issued a statement calling the event "a transparent campaign stunt."

Feuer called the 2006 digital sign agreement "outrageous," but said Trutanich should focus on battling the threatened lawsuit "rather than standing on a street corner trying to save his job."

Clear Channel said in a statement that it converted signs to the digital format "after a thorough permitting process that included public hearings" and approval by the mayor, city attorney and City Council. The company said it would not turn off its signs until the courts provide "specific guidance." Absent final judicial orders, "we will continue to legally operate our digital signs in L.A.," the statement said.

An attorney for Summit said the appeals court was very clear that the signs must go immediately. "It's not complicated," attorney Timothy L. Alger said. "There is no need for some sort of guidance from the court … just demolish them, right now."

Alger filed papers opposing the city's request for more direction, asking the local court to issue an order that reflects the higher court's decision and "invalidates all digital conversion permits issued by the city…. It is that simple."

jean.merl@latimes.com

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