Insurgent Billboards

Signage lobbyist Eston "Dusty" Melton wages guerrilla war on his old employers

Melton noted that two others in the chambers that night, who had also lobbied for the industry in 1985 and years later participated in the grand enforcement delay, would remember as well as he had. One was lawyer George Knox, who was seated a few paces away beside his client, Rex Hodges of Carter Outdoor Advertising. Carter Outdoor owns at least nine illegal expressway billboards.

The other was Commissioner Teele, the man on the dais who now, ironically, was leading the charge against the industry. Over the past two years Teele has swung like a pendulum from industry ally to its worst nightmare. In July 2000, five months after New Times reported the legal limit of ten expressway billboards had been exceeded, Teele convinced his fellow commissioners to create the Outdoor Advertising Review Board. The OARB would come up with solutions to the illegal billboard problem. At the time the Republican commissioner said it was his belief that industry experts should bear responsibility for bringing their own industry into compliance.

But the OARB turned out to be an effective parliamentary mechanism for ensuring more enforcement delays. It took four months for all the commissioners to name their appointees, most of whom turned out to be billboard industry representatives. Then after several months of meetings, the appointees proposed new regulations allowing for more signs, bigger signs, taller signs, and less space between signs. Their recommendations would also have the effect of legalizing the 21 illegal expressway signs. When the OARB presented its recommendations at an April 2000 commission meeting, Teele blasted the industry reps for offering no concessions. He announced their impending "execution." The man widely regarded as the savviest politician on the commission insisted he had been played for a fool. The commission ordered enforcement action to begin.

Former sign company lobbyist Dusty Melton thinks honesty is a bigger issue than ad revenues in the billboard war
Former sign company lobbyist Dusty Melton thinks honesty is a bigger issue than ad revenues in the billboard war

A month later Eller hired Melton to obtain more time. After that ran out, the industry bought several more months of delay when National Advertising, a subsidiary of Viacom Outdoor Group (Infinity Outdoor merged with TDI Worldwide to form Viacom Outdoor last August), filed a federal lawsuit in July 2001 arguing the city's sign law was unconstitutional. City officials had to suspend enforcement action for three more months until a judge ruled they could proceed while the constitutional challenge was pending.

But that was now history. In his speech, Melton seized on something that had emerged during one of the OARB's meetings. A city administrator researching the billboard matter had discovered that, under a 1990 city ordinance, hundreds of signs still standing in commercial zones adjacent to residential areas should have disappeared by 1995. Melton described the industry's flaunting of that ordinance as "nothing short of breathtaking." He said he could not point to "a more public and visible flouting of city law," other than the erection of the illegal expressway billboards.

The billboard companies have enjoyed delay after lucrative delay in the city's enforcement action, as ad revenues continue to pour in each month. One expressway billboard in a heavily traveled city like Miami can generate up to $20,000 per month, or a half-million dollars in two years. That means the 21 illegal expressway billboards alone have brought in about $20 million since March of 2000.

In December of last year, the commission finally appointed one special master to hear billboard cases. Administrators avoided scheduling the most egregious cases, those concerning expressway billboards, opting to deal first with cases involving squabbles over landscaping and other minor issues. In the meantime, billboard allies in Tallahassee were preparing to pass the law that would take regulatory control away from the City of Miami.

"A lot of us are starting to ask," Melton said angrily to the commission. "When are the grotesquely illegal signs going to be dealt with in a meaningful way, and the people who perpetrated this on our community going to suffer the consequences?

"If you all are serious about cleaning up urban blight in this city, if you're serious about sending a message about white-collar crime -- which is what this is -- and if you're serious about not being steamrolled or blindsided by a multi-hundred-million-dollar-a-year industry, then maybe this is the night to send them a message."

In the wake of Melton's defection, city administrators, led by private attorney Carol Licko, are now targeting expressway billboards -- the ones dearest to the industry -- first. In order to prove exactly how they are illegal, the city hired a private engineering firm (Post Buckley Schuh & Jernigan) to survey the dimensions of, and spacing between, the 46 signs city inspectors believe exist along expressways in Miami. City lawyers and zoning officers will use the reconnaissance to bolster their prosecution at the special master tribunals.

"It's going forward!" assures assistant city manager Frank Rollason, who is overseeing the surveying.

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