2001: A Billboard Odyssey

Last year much was learned about Miami's illegal signs, including the fact that they're still standing and still lucrative

The city finally struck back when it hired Parker Thomson and Carol Licko, two highly regarded private attorneys, to fend off the National Advertising lawsuit. The company's claims, Thomson and Licko wrote in a court brief, are "marred by its continued bad faith, including its attempts to extort a settlement favorable to the billboard industry at the expense of city residents.

"The billboard industry's behavior," they continued, "has demonstrated a pattern of notoriously and openly flouting the city's police power. Such behavior can only be described as overt contempt for the city's intent to safeguard and enhance the quality of life of its inhabitants and visitors."

This past September 20 U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King rejected the billboard company's attempt to suspend the city's sign ordinance. "National Advertising cannot demonstrate the threat of irreparable harm today any more than it could have over six years ago," King wrote. The lawsuit provided the judge an opportunity to state the obvious: The city already had a forum for billboard disputes -- its code-enforcement board. King noted the board's rulings can be appealed to state courts. National Advertising immediately went to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta in hopes of overturning King's decision. A ruling was pending at press time.

Locally owned illegal billboard along I-195: Call today for rates!
Steve Satterwhite
Locally owned illegal billboard along I-195: Call today for rates!

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The lawsuit failed to dislodge the sign ordinance but it did serve to stave off enforcement action for another four months. With each expressway sign bringing in $10,000 to $15,000 per month, nothing is more welcome to billboard companies than another enforcement delay.

Attorney MaryAnne Lukacs, the special master assigned to hear billboard disputes, finally began her task on November 29. None of the illegal expressway billboards, however, was on the docket. Neither were any of the hundreds of other billboards that should have come down by 1995 under a law intended to clear signs from commercial zones that border residential areas. "We decided to start with the ones that were the least controversial," explained Sergio Guadix, the NET chief of zoning enforcement. "We wanted to get our feet wet with the easier cases because we know it's going to be a tough fight." Under this strategy, violations involving expressway billboards will come last. "Those are the ones that [the billboard lawyers] are going to fight tooth and nail because those are the ones that make the big bucks," he added.

The first 79 cases brought before Lukacs by the city involved landscaping offenses, minor height violations, and permit problems. Thomas Julin, a local lawyer representing Viacom (a.k.a. National Advertising), and Douglas Halsey, who was hired by Clear Channel (formerly Eller), chipped away at the city's cases. "So your signs are too high and you don't have any irrigation," Lukacs said to Julin regarding a two-sided billboard at NE 29th Street and North Miami Avenue in Wynwood. "How do you plead?"

"Not guilty," responded Julin. He argued that the citation was too vague because it didn't specify which sections of the sign code covered those infractions.

"Insufficient notice," Lukacs determined. She ruled similarly on dozens of cases, meaning NET inspectors will have to reissue the citations.

In one case the city seemed to surrender some of the precious legal ground it gained this year. Halsey persuaded assistant city attorney Ruth Johnson to agree to negotiate, at a later date, a proposal that would allow billboard companies to circumvent one section of the sign ordinance. Under Halsey's deal Clear Channel would pay into a city-managed tree fund instead of providing the landscaping required by current law.

Afterward local billboard executives congratulated Julin for managing to defer several cases. New Times asked him why he thought the city was steering clear of the expressway billboard cases. "I think they want to avoid going right into the teeth of our lawsuit," he replied. "We're right," he added, referring to National Advertising's claim that the sign code is unconstitutional.

Lawyer Carol Licko thought otherwise. "It's unconscionable that the plaintiffs are filing constitutional challenges simply to evade the sign code," she maintained. "The city could say tomorrow we want no signs and it would be perfectly constitutional."

Even if the federal appeals court rejects the industry's attempt to subvert Miami's sign laws, the billboard companies still win. Considering the thousands of dollars per month each expressway billboard generates, they can't afford not to sue. Miami's glacial code-enforcement process promises to be equally lucrative for outdoor advertisers. NET administrators envision at least eight more monthly hearings. The next one is scheduled for January 29.

Local Collaborators
As with any insurgency, the outdoor-advertising industry has relied on local operatives in its campaign to topple Miami's sign laws and install a billboard-friendly regime. Here they are.
•Viacom Outdoor (a.k.a. Infinity Outdoor and National Advertising)
Sergio Pereira, Esther Monzon-Aguirre, and Cliff Walters, lobbyists (Meridian International Group)
Thomas Julin and Patricia Wallace, attorneys (Hunton & Williams)
•Carter Outdoor Advertising
George F. Knox, attorney and lobbyist (Adorno & Zeder)
•Clear Channel Outdoor (a.k.a. Eller Media)
Steven Alexander, lobbyist (Clear Channel's director of government and community relations in South Florida)
Luis E. Rojas, attorney (Duane Morris)
Douglas Halsey, attorney
Charles C. Papy III, attorney (Duane Morris)
Nicolas Gutierrez, Jr., attorney
Sandy Walker, lobbyist
Miguel de Grandy, attorney (withdrew in November 2001)
•Miami Outdoor Advertising
Bobbie Mumford, lobbyist (B Mumford & Company)

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