Wednesday, August 24, 2011

City Attorney's Billboards Break Ban on Billboard Blight

LA's tough guy of billboards may have to arrest himself over allegedly illegal billboards - HIS OWN BILLBOARDS.

This from the Los Angeles Dragnet:

DRAGNET EXCLUSIVE: He's the hero of the anti-billboard movement in Los Angeles. He has threatened to arrest city workers over billboards. His million dollar bail for an Oscars billboard garnered him the national headlines he so desperately craves, and his scorched earth policy on billboards earned him a $2M settlement check that he "bizarrely" tried to use for a political payoff to a campaign supporter.

But when it comes to his own billboards, it seems that City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has a different set of rules.

Two double-sided billboards appear to violate LA City Atty Trutanich's
own ban on "off site" adverts. They are his own billboards!

Four billboards on Ventura Blvd. currently advertise Carmen Trutanich City Attorney. Located at the Allen Realty Plaza (12522 to 12528 Ventura Blvd.), the billboards appear to be a carryover from the time during 2008-2009 when Trutanich leased his campaign headquarters at 12524 Ventura Blvd.

Two of the billboards (double sided shown above) are fairly prominent, the other double sided billboards (below) simply promote Trutanich's former campaign website:

During the time Trutanich occupied 12524 Ventura Blvd., the billboards were "On Site" advertisements. In the lingo of billboard law, they advertised goods, services or activities available at the location. The billboards stated "Carmen Trutanich FOR City Attorney," the activity taking place at 12524 Ventura Blvd.

However, when Trutanich vacated his HQ in July 2009, Trutanich's billboards became "Off Site" advertisements, meaning that they advertised something taking place away from the location of the billboard.

After Trutanich quit the location, the billboards remained. It appears, however, that they were not simply forgotten. In fact they were changed - the word "FOR" was covered up to convey the new message "Carmen Trutanich City Attorney."

Under Trutanich's own law, all billboards in Los Angeles require permits. No doubt Allen Realty Plaza had, and has, valid permits for "On Site" billboards, in other words, billboards advertising the activities of current tenants. However, there is also no doubt that no valid permit exists for any of Trutanich's "Off Site" billboards.

The reason for that is because one of Trutanich's first scorched earth policies was to ban the issuance of any new "Off Site" billboard permits. That was why he threatened to arrest Councilmember Jan Perry, AEG's Tim Leiweke, and several Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety workers if they issued permits for AEG's Regency Cinema at LA Live.

According to information provided by Dennis Hathaway's Ban Billboard Blight organization, illegal off site billboards violate Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) section 91.6201.

Hathaway has links to all relevant billboard laws, and LAMC section 91.6202.2 describes the penalties for violators. If Trutanich's un-permitted off site billboards are in violation of the LAMC, the penalties are extreme, punishable by "a fine of not more than $1,000.00 or by imprisonment in the county jail for a period of not more than six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment." 

Furthermore, "Each violation of the provisions of this division and each day during which such violation is committed or continues is a separate offense." Thus, each of Trutanich's four billboards could result in fines of $1,000 a day for the two years since Trutanich quit his Ventura Blvd. headquarters and moved into City Hall. That amounts to a staggering $2.92M in fines, as well as the possibility of 24 months in jail for each of the 730 days since Trutanich became City Attorney.

Of course that's a disproportionate amount of punishment for what Trutanich probably considers to be be a minor violation of his law, if a violation at all. But then again, Trutanich pursued billboard violators mercilessly regardless of the magnitude of the violation.

Regardless of whether Trutanich's billboards constitute a major or minor violation of his own law, he could nevertheless try to claim that his billboards are exempt from his law. Under LAMC section 91.6201.4 "an ideological, political or other noncommercial message" is not covered by his law.

The problem for Trutanich is that his billboards likely would not qualify for the "political" exception because they fail to display the disclosure statements required by the Fair Political Practices Commission and the City Ethics Commission, both of which require clear identification of who has paid for the "political message."

So if Trutanich's billboards are not exempt because they are not "political," could they be exempt as "ideological or noncommercial?" The problem here is that Trutanich himself considers ideological or noncommercial signs to be subject to his law.

Furthermore, Trutanich's billboards advertising his old campaign website clearly are commercial. The website now appears to be an online retailer of electronic goods, clearly a commercial enterprise.

Whichever way you look at it, Trutanich does seem to be displaying a double standard when it comes to the enforcement of billboard laws. He, above all in Los Angeles, should not be engaged in questionable billboard activity and should be setting an example of how to follow his law, not flout it.

Of course the interesting question that arises is "Who will investigate Trutanich's seemingly illegal billboards?" Clearly Trutanich's City Attorney's Office cannot investigate or prosecute Trutanich, the conflict of interest would be so obvious that even Trutanich could see it. Interestingly, for the same reason, the City Attorney's Office cannot defend Trutanich either; he would have to hire his own defense attorney just as Rocky Delgadillo did when he hired Trutanich.

What about the District Attorney's Office? Could Steve Cooley's Public Integrity Division be tasked with the investigation, or would the current open hostility between Trutanich and his former supporter Cooley, create a conflict of interest there? That would leave either the Attorney General's Office or the US Attorney's Office with jurisdiction to investigate and if necessary prosecute any violation they find. We do hope they follow Trutanich's guidelines on setting bail...

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