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Jail for LA billboard execs?

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has played the jail card in a wildly inappropriate fashion again, the second time in a matter of months. The first was when he threatened to jail a City Council member and AEG executives over the issue of signage at L.A. Live.

Trutanich gained a supersized amount of attention the other week for his crackdown on a Hollywood supergraphic. While we applaud in this case his intent to play tough against the outdoor advertising companies that have generally had free reign in Los Angeles, his tactic of jailing and securing an excessive bail for a business figure threatens to undermine his goals. It also adds to his developing reputation as a politician prone to resort to bullying and perhaps misuse of his powers.

We understand how this particular situation could have developed. For years, unpermitted billboards have sprouted seemingly everywhere. With few legal consequences and lucrative revenue streams, companies were willing to keep taking risks.

There have been sporadic and ineffective attempts at government regulation, including by former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and the City Council. However, these efforts have often been stymied by lawsuits filed by the billboard companies and the pressure applied from their lobbyists. The result has been a patchwork and often confusing approach, and it is difficult for the public to keep track of where things stand and what is allowed. Frustration has generally risen as people see more and more outdoor advertising.

The issue becomes more complex with the varying levels of posters, billboards, supergraphics and electronic signs. The latter generate the most opposition, especially when placed in residential areas.

This is not a call to eliminate outdoor advertising. There are places where the ads, even the supergraphics and electronic signs, fit into the fabric of the community. Portions of Downtown Los Angeles are an appropriate locale: The Figueroa Hotel north of Staples Center would seem empty without its triptych of shifting supergraphics, a few of which might even qualify as public art. The flickering, illuminated images in and around L.A. Live also seem appropriate, and any resident moving in to that area knows what they are getting into.

The problem comes when the signs are raised without permits or in neighborhoods where they don’t fit. That seems to be the case in Hollywood, where a mega-poster designed to promote an upcoming film was hung upon a building shortly before the Academy Awards.

Trutanich felt this flouted the law, and it sounds like he’s right. News reports say the offender had been warned a couple of times. But rather than simply issue a citation and send a marshal to enforce removal, Trutanich had a businessman responsible for the ad arrested and jailed. Talk about a new approach.

On one hand, this sends a clear signal that blatant transgressions will not be tolerated. That is likely Trutanich’s intent, and it comes on the heels of other recent tough stands he has taken against outdoor advertising companies. In this regard, we think the new City Attorney is doing the right thing — he has to let billboard companies, and the landlords who allow their buildings to be draped in supergraphics, know that when signs are not permitted or pose a danger to the public, there will be consequences. Trutanich has to take action, and yes, get in the face of the offender.

But there is a difference between action and overreaction, and the latter is what occurred when Trutanich secured a $1 million bail for the businessman. This is an amount more often (and more appropriately) reserved for violent felons or those who might go free on a low bail and then flee the area.

A $1 million bail does not seem suitable in this instance, and the claim that it was so high because the billboard might fall feels flimsy — the billboard might have been ugly as sin, but when was the last time a supergraphic fell off a building and injured people? Even if his argument that it was a hazard holds water, sending a marshal to enforce removal would have served better.

No wonder that, a few days after the arrest, the man’s bail was lowered to $100,000.

We hope Trutanich will continue to crack down on outdoor advertising companies that flout the law. But he needs to carefully consider his tactics, as they draw attention away from what he is trying to achieve. Such bullying is not an effective or a wise path.

Reprinted with permission L.A. Downtown News, www.DowntownNews.com.