Wednesday, February 26, 2014

That City Council Meeting About the Billboards

I'm going to begin at the end. It was 12:24 at night, and there had been over five hours of hugely contentious discussion about billboards. The meeting had actually been recessed after an outburst earlier on in the evening: Cam Noltemeyer questioned Councilmember Ferry's residency in Santa Clarita, suggesting his vote wouldn't be a legitimate one (more on that below). Councilmember Ferry made a motion to accept a deal to remove dozens of existing, conventional billboards in exchange for putting up three large, digital billboards by the 5 and 14. Despite a few modifications based on comments from Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean and Councilmember Boydston, it was a deal that the MTA wanted and a deal that the large crowd--with few exceptions--did not.

Boydston asked what the hurry was; McLean wasn't even sure all of her concerns had been added to the contract they were voting on; the City's own consultant and the MTA itself(!) had admitted that the MTA had given other cities better deals; and there had been embarrassingly condescending pressure from the MTA to pass this "great deal" tonight rather than worry about all of the details. So, of course, Mayor McLean, Councilmember Kellar, and Councilmember Ferry voted to take the billboard-swap deal. Councilmember Boydston voted no, and Mayor Weste didn't vote at all, having recused herself from the discussion because of her home's proximity to the billboards in question. The most poignant moment was when the audience began protesting the vote that was about to occur, and McLean demanded they be silent or she would send them all out of the council chambers. And without missing a beat, she then said, "This benefits the entire community." (To paraphrase: shut up so I can do what I know is good for you.)

Now, in chronological order, is how we arrived at this moment.

A Peaceful Invocation

Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean anticipated a long meeting when she offered her invocation. She asked that everyone "Stop, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and think of something lovely and nice...just think of something really pleasant for just a few seconds...OK great, that's my invocation." (Maybe she should have closed her eyes a little bit longer.)

Next came recognitions of a team of local girls who won the Lego League Robotics LA Regional Championship. They explained how they built a sophisticated robotic vehicle to deal with simulated natural-Lego-disasters, such as tsunamis and wildfires. One of the girls explained that in an interview with a firefighter, they learned squirrels often catch on fire during blazes, which they found both sad and humorous. Ferry asked about their plans for the future, and many of them said they planned to pursue engineering. After another recognition for citizens who used CPR to keep a man alive until he could be rushed to the hospital, we endured a dreadfully long and pitifully vague (at least until the end) update of Parks Commission goals and accomplishments.

Public Participation: Boyer's Return

During Public Participation, Cam Noltemeyer expressed her disappointed with how the City has been challenging the chloride issue (attempts are feeble, misdirected, and ineffective, she claimed). Carl Boyer continued to lament the state of City-County relations in what is the fourth (or thereabout) of his comments on this topic in recent meetings. He noted that to bid on a foreclosure in Santa Clarita, someone has to go to Pomona--outrageous! CC Candidate Dennis Conn also spoke.

The Unfinished Business of Cell Towers

After relatively brief updates on business from the members of council, it was time for the Consent Calendar. The only substantive item on the calendar had already been postponed to the next meeting, which left the calendar essentially empty. Some bookkeeping items about checks, reading of ordinances, and minutes were approved unanimously.

Next, Rick Gould came up to address an item under the heading of "unfinished business". The City Council had asked that staff look into whether a proposed cell phone antennae could be designed to be less visually objectionable. Gould said there were no real options to redesign the cell antennae, which was proposed for addition to an existing electrical tower. Engineering constraints meant it would have to look as proposed. Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean, self-appointed champion of all matters aesthetic in Santa Clarita, thought this was outrageous. In her mind, adding an ugly cell antennae to an ugly utility tower meant double-ugly, while everyone else seemed to think that having both features together minimized their aesthetic impact. As Kellar phrased it, he'd rather "have ugly on ugly." McLean would vote no on the request to add cell antennaes to electrical towers, but everyone else voted yes, so it passed. Ferry dismissed McLean and Noltemeyer's concerns about the safety and appearance of the additions, saying "When Chicken Little says the sky is falling, sometimes everything's in place and it's OK."

Public Hearing: BILLBOARDS

The discussion of billboards was very long, and right now, it's very late. So to be brief, tonight the City Council considered a proposal to get rid of 118 conventional billboard faces in exchange for allowing LA County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to run 6 digital electronic billboard faces, each 14 feet high, 48 feet across, and visible from one major freeway or the other. The City would act as landlord, MTA would have a 50 year lease, and some of the revenue earned by MTA (the billboards are expected to generate millions in advertising revenue, eventually) would be shared with the City. The ads on the billboards would appear for 8 seconds at a time and have no animations so as not to be unduly distracting to motorists.

Most everyone agreed that any billboard is ugly and undesirable, but there was considerable debate about which was less objectionable: lots of "regular" billboards that we're used to and that are run by a local family business, or a few digital billboards that will be added to the skyline and be run by a larger, distant, unconnected company.

One highlight from the background presentation was a series of mock-ups showing what the huge digital billboards would look like to a driver. Of course, in these illustrations, the driver was so far away that the billboards looked miniscule and inoffensive. The City staff wanted this measure passed (it was the recommended action) so perhaps this wasn't too surprising. When the applicant (MTA) had time to make their case, they employed some engineers to address anticipated objections to safety and lighting impact on residents. The engineer presenters were too nervous (the first one) or tedious (the second one) to be terribly effective, but they imparted some key facts. Apparently, digital billboards do not lead to more distraction than standard billboards, and the light from the billboards would be like adding an extra moon's worth of light (or a half-moon's worth of light, depending on distance) to nearby homes. The presentation went 5 minutes over the allotted half-hour presentation period (the audience booed or yelled no when McLean asked if they could allow them the extra time) so that a spokesman could say that local businesses would be given a 15% discount on digital billboard advertising. This was intended to appease protests, but it did not.

The Public Thinks Digital Billboards Are a Bad Idea

Nearly 30 people spoke after the presentation, with all but a handful opposing the electronic billboards. To summarize their main points:

*Whether it's a conventional billboard or digital billboard, blight is blight; don't swap one form for another
*Approval will open the door to bringing even more electronic billboards to the SCV
*In-town, smaller billboards focus on local customers; freeway drivers are unlikely to go into the heart of the SCV based on a billboard
*The hillside views are beautiful, even from the freeway--don't mar them with billboards
*The forces behind this swap are out-of-town-advertisers and MTA, which regularly screws us over
*A small, local family business runs the billboards at present, and it would be a shame to end this business's vitality

Highlights included Tony and Reena Newhall, who pointed out situations where conventional billboard advertising is irreplaceable and questioned the wisdom of the deal. Alan Ferdman was uncharacteristically spirited and even funny during his comments. He noted that one of the experts claimed adding digital billboards led to an average 11% *decrease* in car accidents based on his studies, so Ferdman sarcastically suggested that we add lots of these billbaords until we eliminate accidents altogether. He also said McLean's opposition to ugly cell towers earlier in the meeting surely signaled her opposition to ugly billboards.

A few speakers were in favor of the electronic billboards. One woman said the billboards in town were ineffective (and sometimes inappropriate for her grandchildren). Berta Gonzalez-Harper said it was a good deal. Joe Messina said billboard advertising is outdated; there were many self-declared marketing experts, this evening.

Ferry vs. Cam

In the midst of comments, Cam Noltemeyer came up and asked whether Frank Ferry could even legally vote on the billboard matter. She said she had received documents from a friend wherein Ferry listed his residence as not falling within the City of Santa Clarita. As she was leaving, Ferry yelled at her that she was lying, saying he had not filed those documents, and demanding that she produce them. The yelling went back and forth, with TimBen trying to call a point of order. McLean said she would call a recess if Ferry didn't cut it out, but he pushed for it, saying it would give Cam time to go home and get the supposed proof. This led to a recess, because Ferry wouldn't be quiet in his protestations.

The Council and Applicant Discuss
TimBen Boydston's comments began with a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation from the group Scenic America, which described the horrors and dangers of digital billboards. One of the experts hired by MTA said the information was outdated. Boydston was quiet for the moment, but it was clear he'd have much more to say shortly.

Bob Kellar said he had many friends in the audience, but he disagreed with those who didn't like the billboard swap deal. He was unapologetically in favor of it, and he used his usual brand of homespun--if not rigorous--logic and folksy for-instances to justify his position.

Frank Ferry said he sympathized with the losses that would be incurred by the Edwards family from loss of the existing billboards in town, but he, too, was in favor of the swap. With the same condescension he's used at other times when discussing local business (e.g., when he explained the departure of Newhall Hardware), he said that billboards basically don't work and that local businesses need to be taught and mentored about how to advertise in other, more modern ways. Then, curiously, he went on to praise digital billboards, saying they're better looking than normal billboards, and even likening them to paintings.

Then it was time for Boydston to speak again. "This whole billboard issue is so disturbing to me on so many levels," he began. After expressing his hatred for all billboards, he said the conventional type in town were undeniably effective (for some businesses) and cost effective (perhaps a tenth the cost to use as electronic billboards in LA). His key point was that the City of Santa Clarita shouldn't become billboard landlords at the cost of driving a private company out of the business. Then he brought up many justified fears about litigation. "We're gonna get sued is what I've been told." Apart from suits coming from Clear Channel or others effected by eliminating conventional billboards, he was able to get City Attorney Joe Montes to confirm several of his worries about legal exposure to the City produced by being landlord for the billboard enterprise. He also questioned some of the language in the deal. For example, the MTA said it would share profits with the City after covering expenses, which it did not lay out explicitly but covered with a few examples and the word "etcetera." Boydston was suspicious of why didn't they list all the specific expenses. He went on for a very, very long time, but unlike some other times in the past, he had many legitimate points of objection and was the only member of council to demonstrate that he read through the contract in great detail.

Mayor Pro Tem McLean said it was her turn next and she began by asking a simple question: "Are any cities getting a better deal than we are?" The short answer from the City's contract consultant was "yes", and this answer was even confirmed by MTA. (They made the qualification that removal of existing billboards made up the difference). At this point, it looked like the issue would be tabled--so Tweeted reporters Luke Money and Perry Smith--but McLean began systematically going through and trying to spiffy the deal up. She was posing all of her suggestions hypothetically, but then a man from MTA talked down to the City Council, calling it a "great deal" and not so subtly mocking Boydston for asking to read through all the data presented tonight before reaching a decision. Ferry and McLean asked City Manager Ken Striplin to read through all the ammendments to the contract:

*Guaranteed access and pricing for local businesses
*Ensuring no existing homes see the signs
*Specific time-frames for City messages to appear
*Have specific expenses for operations (not "etcetera")
*Creation of a small business marketing fund, $15K from City, $15K from MTA, to help local businesses advertise
*Tighten up language to protect City from lawsuits

At 12:24, Frank Ferry moved the recommended actions. Kellar seconded. Mayor Pro Tem McLean preemptively said they would have the security of a second reading to change things. Even though City Attorney Joe Montes said any changes would mean they'd have to rever back to a first reading, and though she wasn't sure all her concerns had been addressed, it was clear she was ready to move forward. After a few minute's pause to look over things, the votes in favor began. Boydston said he would vote with a comment--it was a pretty well delivered condemnation of the hastiness of the deal--and voted "no." McLean then made her own statement about how this would benefit everyone and, after telling people to be quiet so she could speak, she voted in favor. In short, the City is going to get three new digital billboards visible from the freeway. In a meeting where former Mayor Boyer had lamented the County's disinterest in serving Santa Clarita, the City Council (well, 3/5 of it) had gone out of its way to do what LA County wanted.

The meeting ended just after 12:30. The most interesting thing we have to await is Cam's return to the next City Council meeting. Will she present proof that Ferry doesn't live in the Santa Clarita Valley and use that to push for dismissal of the billboard approval? We'll have to wait and see.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent write up. I hung in as long as I could (11:30).

pam said...

Hi. Sorry this is off topic but I didn't know how else to contact you and I don't know any other birders. you identify this bird by its call? It's usually 4 notes: 2 ascending chirps + 2 descending chirps. (Chirr EEP - CHIR ooh.

pam said...

Also it's in SCV.

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