September 19, 2007
Billboard battle

Interesting approach being taken here by the city regarding billboards.

Last month, [Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel] told Nooky's and dozens of other companies that their billboards were illegal -- not because of the content, but because of the location -- and threatened them with $500-a-day fines for violating Houston's sign code.

This effort, which applies to billboards in a five-mile zone just outside Houston's limits, represents a different strategy for the city: enforcing the rules against those who use illegal billboards, and not just the media companies that own them.

"We ought to be concerned about this issue because the city has a longstanding policy of attempting to cut down on visual blight," said Jim Moriarty, a Houston lawyer helping the city's billboard enforcement efforts on a pro bono basis.

Today, Moriarty is scheduled to meet with RTM Media, the company that sold space to Nooky's and scores of other advertisers, to discuss the city's crackdown.

Mayor Bill White and Moriarty say RTM has ignored a city code prohibiting such billboards in Houston's extra-territorial jurisdiction, a five-mile band around the city. To date, the city has issued more than 2,100 municipal citations against one of RTM's officers, according to court records.

So the city is going after the billboard company's customers, since the billboard company itself has been unresponsive. That unresponsiveness stems in part from an insistence that they're doing nothing illegal, a point of contention for which lawsuits have been filed.

In court filings and other documents, the company takes issue with the city's position that it has the authority to regulate billboards along highways in its extraterritorial jurisdiction.

The company says that power rests with the Texas Department of Transportation, despite a state law passed earlier this year clarifying the city's authority.

TxDOT declined to comment Monday.

According to its lawsuit, RTM does not believe the city can require its customers to obtain permits, as it claims the city is doing by focusing on advertisers.

"If the city persists in citing RTM's advertisers, it means that virtually every organization advertising on a billboard in the City of Houston is, and has been, in violation of the Houston Sign Code," according to a letter [RTM's attorney Robert] Williams sent City Attorney Arturo Michel.

The company has asked a federal court judge to stop the city from enforcing the code against its advertisers. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

We'll see what happens. As we know, the city has had a pretty good run in the courts lately. Based on what I've read so far, I wouldn't bet against the city here.

The letters sent by the city came as a surprise to some of the advertisers, which include law firms, real estate brokers and Web sites.

Kevin Morgan, who owns Eskimo Hut, a drive-though convenience store that sells frozen daiquiris, said he plans to keep his sign up.

He said he cannot afford other types of advertising.

"This avenue is my lifeline in trying to advertise my business," he said.

David Daugherty, who owns Ducky's Car Wash on FM 1960 east of Stuebner Airline, said he would try to get out of his contract with RTM.

Daugherty said he did not know his sign violated the law. He also said the company pressured him to sign the deal a day before the city's letter arrived.

"I'm going to subjugate myself to the city's position until I hear otherwise," he said. "I don't have any dogs in that fight."

White said the city had no choice but to notify the customers who may not have known they were in violation of city code.

"We think it's fair to let the customers know before any citation was issued, so that if somebody was not informed they have an opportunity to cancel the advertising," he said. "Our goal is to enforce the law."

Getting back to the original point, I'm not sure how I feel about this approach by the city. On the one hand, it feels heavyhanded. The businesses who leased these billboards did so in good faith, and this has got to be putting them in a tough position. On the other hand, the city is giving them a warning before citing them, thus giving them a chance to extricate themselves quickly and easily. This appears to be another question for the courts to settle, so we'll know soon enough if this is a legally acceptable strategy that the city is employing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 19, 2007 to Local politics