By Miriam Raftery
Photo by Gene Carpenter
September 28,2023 (La Mesa) – Last night, the La Mesa City Council voted 4-1 to ask staff to prepare a revised RFP (request for proposals) for digital billboards, with Councilman Jack Shu opposed.
The action reverse a July 25 vote, when Council rejected a similar proposal by a 3-2 vote. The major difference? The new plan would provide that any revenues the city receives off digital billboards for the first five years would be spent equally on police, fire protection, and the arts, said Councilman Colin Parent, who introduced the revised measure.
Several people showed up before the meeting with protest signs, such as “Keep digital billboards out of La Mesa,” though some others spoke in support.
The city attorney explained that the current municipal code prohibits electronic billboards, so before Council could approval and proposal that the RFP might elicit, Council would have to amend the municipal code. The state law prohibits new billboards, so only replacement of existing billboards could occur. The federal Highway Beautification Act would also apply.
Councilmember Patricia Dillard peppered the city attorney with questions, revealing that Cal Trans prohibits advertising on billboards on landscaped property maintained by Cal Trans.”The whole point is revenues. If we can’t do advertising, that’s a deal breaker,”she said.
The city attorney indicated the RFP would require any proposals to demonstrate compliance with city, state and federal laws. Dilllard responded this seems like
putting “the cart before the horse.” She also asked for safety data, but the attorney said that data would be requested as part of the RFP process, then come back to the council for public vetting.
During public comments, speakers were sharply divided on the issue.
Opponents cited concerns ranging from safety to aesthetics.
Paul Krueger urged Council to reject any efforts to move forward on digital billboards. He lives in San Diego near near SDSU. He objects to electronic billboards and kiosks as “garish and unsafe.” He called on the Council to find other sources of funding for public safety and the arts.
Former Councilmember Kristine Alessio asked, “Do you want to devalue our quality of life? Do you really want to have giant flashing billboards….We don’t need this.” She asked the Council, “Are we for sale for sale to the highest bidders for billboards and development proposals? That’s not the way La Mesa should be.”
Ron Askeland with the San Diego Sierra Club said electronic billboards could increase traffic accidents and that revenues were not worth the aesthetic harm.
Don Wood asked, “Is the latest proposal even legal?” He asked whether staff would be relying on information provided by billboard companies, cited transparency concerns,and asked if the public would have a chance to comment on a proposed RFP before it would be issued.
Gerda Homlstrom Engen said she’s worked in outdoor advertising for Caltrans permitting and regulating billboards in three counties, including San Diego. She noted that Parent and Mayor Mark Arapostathis did not address the concerns raised by residents when a digital billboard measure failed in July. “There’s nothing wrong with bringing revenue into the city, but at what price?” she asked. Engen urged that the city not rely on billboard companies’ research and wants issued addressed before any RFP is sent out.
Jonathan Franklin, a planning commissioner, said, “We are safer for considering a diversified portfolio of revenues.” He urged that the planning commission be allowed to review theRFP, bringing its members expertise to analyze and proposed revisions.
Bill Wilson ,president of the La Mesa Police Officers Association, applauded Council for having the “courage to explore different options for non-tax-based revenues” adding, “It’s very important that we keep this city safe.”
Melissa Walter, a commissioner for the city’s Arts and Culture Commission, said they are working on a new walkway to the stars mural and other public art projects, and want to pay fair wages to artists but need financial support. Whether or not an RFP is approved, she urged, “I hope each of you continue to advocate for the arts and find a way to provide a sustainable arts and culture program for La Mesa.”
Lane Lawson, Clearchannel Outdoor’s vice president of public affairs for California, said the company has worked with the Cushman family, long-time owners of Grossmont Center, for years to bring the city proposed outdoor signs. He said Cal Trans permits are only granted afterlocal approval, but that Clearchannel has obtained preliminary approval for an I-8 digital billboard near the shopping mall. He said revenue to the city could exceed $3 million for each digital billboard approved.
Vice Mayor Laura Lothian called this a “tough” decision, a sentiment echoed by Dillard. Lothian said she earlier voted against the July proposal because a speaker said 250 letters were written opposing it, but has since learned that “248 letters were outside La Mesa…Supporting the arts, supporting police, not wrecking the charm---a lot of these things are very important.”
Councilman Shu called the plan “flawed” for several reasons. “Until we answer the question as to whether we want or need additional billboards, we really shouldn’t be doing that (putting out an RFP),” he said, adding that a conditional RFP might not yield highest bids.
But his main reasons for opposing the proposal centered around aesthetics and safety, noting that a compendium of 15 studies raised serious concerns about potential driver distractions.
“I don’t believe the city’s budget is in dire straight,” said Shu, who said police and fire have already received what they requested from Council, though he would support finding another funding source for the arts right away. “We shouldn’t be putting our city up for sale, the culture of La Mesa,”he concluded. “If we let it happen here on I-8, you know that it will happen in other parts of La Mesa.”
The city attorney said Council could direct staff to put recommendations together and bring the RFP back to the Council.
Parent said he would oppose digital billboards in the village or residential areas, prompting Shu to ask, “Why do we have a different standard for the village…Why wouldn’t we want someone to have a good feeling about La Mesa when they drive through I-8?” He also called for “credible information” and suggested asking Caltrans to do additional safety assessments.
Parent proposed adding criteria for any RFP including being compliant with all laws, guaranteeing that La Mesa could have its own public service messaging, limiting digital billboards only to commercial areas excluding the village, with none in residential areas, requiring the RFP to be made public and any proposal be calendared for a public meeting before Council votes on it.
Dillard disagreed with Shu’s view that law enforcement doesn’t need more money and said Chief Sweeney has told her the biggest challenge is addressing homelessness. If the RFP is approved, she wants to be sure police and firefighting are funded, as well as the arts.
Mayor Arapostathis made a motion to vote for staff to prepare an RFP for electronic billboards. The proposal passed 4-1, with Shu opposed.
In a call to ECM, former Mayor Art Madrid blasted the action. Madrid, who spent 45 years serving the city as mayor, councilman, and on commissions, said, “That issue has been before prior councils many times. It was always voted with a `no’ response from the entire council, even though the proponents were always looking for revenues.”
He likened the issue to cell phone companies offering money to position unsightly towers, which were also rejected. “It was all about money then and it’s all about money now,” he said, adding, “I’ve been around the block here longer than most of these peoplehave been alive.”
Besides visual blight, Madrid is concerned about safety and the financial wellbeing of the city. He called the council “negligent” for not taking steps to prevent a protest from dissolving into a riot that resulted in the city paying out $10 million to a protester who lost an eye from a police-fired projectile.
He chided Parent for having “no integrity or ethics” in bringing forward the digital billboard proposal.
“I can predict to you that this will again encumber the city with lawsuits. People will be distracted by the sign. They will have accidents, and they will sue the city,” Madrid concluded.