Insurgent Billboards

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

Inspired by an eleventh-hour defection from the enemy camp, Miami city commissioners have turned their lengthy police action against outlaw billboard companies into an all-out offensive. It appears to be a last-ditch effort to roll back one of the most stubborn insurgencies of recent consumerism. But so bold are the city's foes -- ad companies and their lobbyists -- that after spreading visual blight in the form of illegal billboards for the past two decades, this year they lobbied for, and won, state legislation that emasculates a city ordinance they'd already succeeded in ignoring. If commissioners and administrators couldn't get billboard executives to obey Miami's sign ordinance before the Florida legislature weakened it, how are they going to do it now?

Fortunately, the commissioners still have a very short window in which to try something. The state law won't take effect until July 1. The situation called for radical action.

So it was that late in the evening of April 11 the commission chambers at city hall turned into a war room. "We have to move from a peacetime footing to a wartime footing," Commissioner Art Teele declared to administrators, industry lobbyists, and a few members of the general public. The commissioners then proceeded to pass, unanimously, several emergency ordinances, one of which instructed city managers to set up as many code enforcement tribunals as necessary to bring hundreds of billboards to justice before the July 1 deadline. They ordered administrators to proceed immediately with "all" billboard cases, using "all available resources."

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

Among those resources is one of the biggest guns the city has in its arsenal of police powers: the "special master." Similar to a judge, a special master presides over zoning cases involving multiple violations of one kind, in this instance citations against billboards. The appointment of even one special master is rare. In their war room resolve, however, the commissioners authorized the use of as many as necessary to process cases before the state law kicks in.

"This city cannot afford to let an industry take it over like this one has done," Commissioner Teele proclaimed. "Hire ten law firms if necessary!" he instructed assistant city attorney Joel Maxwell. At press time, the Code Enforcement Board had appointed four special masters, all private lawyers. They are scheduled to hold hearings on billboard violations five days a week from May 22 to June 28.

How did commissioners, administrators, and the city they serve fall into this predicament? After all, many of them had been aware of the billboard insurgency since March 2000, when New Times first reported that a countywide law allowing "a maximum of ten" billboards along expressways that run through Miami had been grossly violated ("Everywhere a Sign," New Times, March 23, 2000). Instead of ten, there are at least thirty-one along stretches of I-95, I-395, and I-195 in the City of Miami. Here it was two years later and the city had failed to eliminate a single illegal billboard. Worse, one week earlier Gov. Jeb Bush had signed the pro-billboard legislation, which was part of a transportation bill. Under this new state law, every time city officials want to enforce local ordinances to dismantle a billboard they will have to hold time-consuming negotiations with billboard executives, enter into relocation agreements, and use public tax dollars to compensate the outdoor advertising companies. (Twelve of Miami-Dade's state house reps supported the billboard measure. Only one, Carlos Lacasa, voted against relinquishing local power in favor of an outlaw industry. Seven others abstained. One of the seven senators from Miami-Dade backed it.) In short, the state law will provide an endless source of ammunition to bolster the three prongs of the industry's strategy: delay, delay, and delay.

Just prior to voting on the emergency measures, the commissioners had heard firsthand about that strategy from Eston "Dusty" Melton. Melton, a 48-year-old native of Virginia, an Eagle Scout (literally), and a former Miami Herald political editor, casts himself as an honest lobbyist in a town where that term strikes many as an oxymoron. For several months last year he had represented his client, Eller Media, and the other billboard companies as a fair industry. Eller Media (now Clear Channel) had hired Melton in April of last year to persuade commissioners that billboard executives were finally willing to begin discussing a plan for the removal of illegal billboards. And Melton had succeeded in gaining time for additional negotiations.

But tonight the lobbyist's message was quite the opposite. "On behalf of my client," he said, "I convinced this commission [in early May 2001] because I believed that the industry had realized the errors of its ways and was going to come to the table and negotiate in good faith.... Three months later for the first time in a twenty-year career I quit a client as a matter of conscience. Because I sat in their meetings and concluded in three short months that I had lied to this commission because my client had lied to me."

Moreover, Melton said, no debate over expressway billboards, much less the present war, should ever have taken place because a conflict over them was honorably settled in 1985. That was the year the Dade County Commission banned billboards from expressways throughout the county, except for the "maximum of ten" in Miami. Melton was the central lobbyist among those who somehow persuaded a majority of county commissioners to accept the ten-billboard compromise. "Not a single [expressway billboard] was built in this city from 1985 until just about two years ago," Melton said. "Why? Because the entire billboard industry was at the table to reach the compromise in the summer of '85. And they knew that no [more] signs could be permitted because you weren't allowed to even ask permission. The entire local industry was part of the compromise ... the political accommodation, whatever you will." It was an "absolute, lifetime prohibition against more expressway billboards throughout the county, including in this city."

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.

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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