Metropolitan News-Enterprise

 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

 

Page 7

 

IN MY OPINION (Column)

Comments on Trutanich Signs Reflect Inconsistency, Blarney

 

By DAVID BERGER

 

 (The writer is a former Los Angeles city attorney candidate, former special assistant city attorney to Carmen Trutanich, and is currently a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney. The opinions expressed by him are personal and not those of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.)

The responses of the City Attorney’s Office and the Department of Building and Safety regarding the legality of City Atorney Carmen Trutanich’s Ventura Boulevard billboards (“Leftover Trutanich Signs Not Illegal Advertisements, Officials Say,” MetNews, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011) not only revealed apparent inconsistencies in the enforcement of the city’s billboard laws, but also displayed an alarming lack of accountability and an equally shocking arrogance of office.

The Los Angeles Dragnet blog questioned Trutanich’s four billboards outside his former campaign headquarters were “off-site” signs that violated Trutanich’s own law banning off-site signs. An off-site sign promotes an activity taking place away from the location of the sign. We see them all over Los Angeles and they are part of a multi-billion dollar industry that the city has struggled to contain. While Trutanich ran his campaign to become city attorney, his billboards outside his Ventura Boulevard headquarters were lawful “on-site” signs, but when Trutanich moved to City Hall in July 2009, the signs remained outside his shuttered headquarters, hence the question: are they now illegal off-site signs?

 


                                                                           Photos courtesy of losangelesdragnet.blogspot.com

Four billboards by Trutanich's former campaign headquarters on Ventura Boulevard are still on display.

 

Those familiar with the city’s troubled history of billboard regulation need no reminding that inconsistencies in the city’s enforcement of its own law led to the farcical legal quagmire resulting, at one time, in the city being enjoined from enforcing its own billboard laws. This was a legal mess that Trutanich inherited, and his solution was a citywide ban on any new off-site signs.

Given that Trutanich has frequently hailed his own successes in reigning in off-site signs, it surely provides all the more reason for Trutanich to dispel any suggestion that he is in violation of his own law. But far from answering the question, or better yet, removing the offending billboards and apologizing for his error, Trutanich did not provide a response personally—perhaps he was too busy on the campaign trail. Instead, Trutanich’s deputy attempted to respond.

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To say that the chief deputy city attorney’s response to the illegal off-site sign allegation was a jaw-dropper would be an understatement. “The determination of the signs’ legality is not one that is made by his [the City Attorney’s] office” the deputy said, adding that he would “defer to any other department or office to make that decision.”

In other words, “It’s not my job to determine whether a sign is legal or not.” That’s quite a contradiction as, in recent times, the City Attorney’s Office has not been shy to condemn illegal signs—few can forget Trutanich grabbing national headlines for throwing Los Angeles businessman Kayvan Setareh in jail on $1M bail for daring to place a supergraphic sign on his office building during the Oscars ceremony in 2010.

Equally, when AEG sought permits for signs at their new Regency Cinema complex at LA Live, it was Truanich who personally threatened to arrest Councilmember Jan Perry and the Building and Safety officials who wanted to issue the permits. The city attorney, clearly, was not willing to “defer” to anyone who disagreed with his “determination of the signs’ legality” on those occasions, so the sudden volte face when his own signs come under unwelcome scrutiny appears to be hypocritical, to say the least.

Frankly, it ridiculous for the City Attorney’s Office to suggest that it does not determine the legality of billboards and signs. The determination the legality of any alleged violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code is surely one of the core functions of the City Attorney’s Office.

What makes the Trutanich chief deputy’s statement even more disingenuous is that at the very same time the statement was made, Trutanich personally released a statement condemning the City of Santa Monica’s plans to install digital billboards on their buses.

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But if Trutanich’s inability to account for what may be an inconvenient truth about the legality of his Ventura Boulevard billboards, the statements of City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety Inspector Luke Zamparini were even more incredulous.

Zamparini said that he had “viewed pictures of the signs through Google Maps,” and “did not consider them to be illegal offsite advertising,” adding that he saw “a vinyl sign that’s just stuck up there like a ‘Grand Opening’ or ‘Going Out of Business’ sign occasionally used by businesses.” Of course he could have looked at the photos published on the Dragnet, but even looking at the pictures on Google Maps, Trutanich’s billboards do not look anything like vinyl signs. Who is he trying to fool?

Let us not forget that if Trutanich succeeds in forcing his Administrative Code Enforcement (“ACE”) Program through Council, the Department of Building and Safety will be the lead agency issuing the revenue-generating “Administrative Citations” that Trutanich has promised will solve the city’s budget problems. Trutanich has touted the ACE Program as a self-funding scheme whereby residents can be swiftly fined for code violations without using the criminal court system, “just like a traffic ticket” he told Kevin James in a recent interview.

Is Zamparini’s woefully inaccurate and shamefully inadequate investigation of Trutanich’s billboards representative of the kind of evidence that will be used to issue those money-making administrative citations? Or is this just a case of Zamparini closing ranks and being unwilling to apply the law equally when Trutanich’s signs are questioned?

But beyond the issue of any favoritism towards Trutanich, Zamparini made statements that completely contradict the law as it has been applied to others. A “temporary sign like that doesn’t require a permit,” Zamparini said. Really? That will come as welcome news to World Wide Rush, CBS Outdoors and any number of other billboard bandits who can now simply claim the “Zamparini temporary sign defense.”

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Of course, the Zamparini defense wasn’t available to Kayvan Setareh, was it? His “How to train your dragon” movie sign was only intended to be displayed during the Oscars ceremony—but that’s not temporary enough. However, Trutanich’s temporary signs have been displayed for over two years and are just fine according to Zamparini. In fairness, Zamparini did say that Trutanich’s billboards “can’t stay up forever,” but he did not indicate how much more than two years is “forever.” Indefinitely would seem to be the answer, or at least long enough to help Trutanich’s name recognition in his campaign to become district attorney. Either way it is not an answer that gives any degree of confidence in the ability of the City Attorney or the Department of Building and Safety to enforce the law in the fair and evenhanded manner that Los Angelenos are entitled to expect.

The billboard industry is a billion dollar a year money maker both for those who follow the rules and for those who break them. Zamparini’s and Trutanich’s statements will surely be used by those who want to break the rules and bring back the billboard blight that Los Angelenos thought was finally under control. It is beyond ironic that Trutanich’s own vanity and blatant hypocrisy could undermine the efforts that have been made to regulate this industry. Of course, by the time the next wave of billboard blight hits Los Angeles, Trutanich plans to have moved on to higher office and it won’t be his problem.

 

Following Trutanich's election, billboard was altered to remove the word "for."

 

One cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that Trutanich appears to have already checked out and is ready to move on, confident that swelling a campaign war chest is more important than addressing the business of his office, let alone disabusing the appearance of impropriety.

Mr. Trutanich, for the sake of Los Angeles, take down those billboards.

 

Sources:

“Trutanich’s Billboard Blunder,” Los Angeles Dragnet, August 24, 2011

“Leftover Trutanich Signs Not Illegal Advertisements, Officials Say”

Metropolitan News-Enterprise, August 26, 2011

Trutanich to Santa Monica: Your Buses with Digital Ads Aren’t Welcome in L.A.”

Ban Billboard Blight, August 25, 2011

“City Attorney Enforces Ordinance On Illegal Supergraphics”

Los Angeles City Attorney Website, March 23, 2010

“Businessman Held on $1 Million Bail in Supergraphic Case”

Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2010

“Council Chastises City Attorney, Supports Signage for L.A. Live’s Regal Cinemas”

Blog DownTown, October 23, 2009

 

 

Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company