November 09, 2003
(Updated) Exclusive: Commissioner Leonard To Announce Cessation Of Negotiations With Clear Channel Over City's Sign Code
Note: This post has been updated. Any and all updates appear at the end of the original post.
Later this week, Commissioner Randy Leonard will announce that he has called a halt to his ongoing negotiations with Clear Channel regarding billboards and wall signs in Portland, without reaching a final agreement. The Commissioner will cite a lack of cooperation from the office of Mayor Vera Katz as a prime factor in his decision to call off further talks.
Three weeks ago, I pointed readers to a story in The Oregonian about a tentative deal that had been reached with Clear Channel that would have cleared the way for reconsideration of the City's sign code.
Such a potential reconsideration, and therefore these negotiations, were prompted by the targeting of murals in Southeast Portland by the Bureau of Development Services back in July -- enforcement actions which were almost immediately suspended by Leonard, who is the Commissioner responsible for BDS. (See also some later follow-up.)
These tensions are the result of the current version of the City's sign code (see also this explanation), which was written to accomodate the opinion of the Oregon Supreme Court that community murals and commercial signs cannot be treated differently under the expansive speech protections afforded by the Oregon Constitution.
While placing various limits on all such signs equally, these changes to the City's sign code also grandfathered in existing signs which otherwise would have violated the new restrictions.
In an early draft (pdf) of the statement his office will release midweek, which I received this weekend, Leonard makes his case for calling off the negotiations with Clear Channel:
In the past two weeks, I became increasingly aware that the documents and information I was forwarding to Mayor Katz were not being analyzed for the purpose of making a counter proposal, but rather were being analyzed to make the Mayor's case that the current sign code should not be changed. The Mayor recently communicated to me that, following her meetings with council members, support does not exist on the council to amend the sign code along the provisions and principles I have been negotiating with Clear Channel.
According to Commissioner Leonard, his negotiations with Clear Channel had most recently resulted in a potential deal in which the company would: Drop its lawsuit against the City of Portland; forgive the current $1.3 million judgement against the City (which the company is seeking to increase to $8 million); pay the City $500,000; reduce the number of billboards within the City by fifty-three; remove all billboards in residential neighborhoods within thirty days of signing the agreement; donate seven of the company's current wall sign locations to Metro Murals; and agree to register each billboard and wall sign within the City and pay an annual registration fee.
Also included was a cap on the number of billboards within the City, which had been reported by The Oregonian as being set at 546. Not included was any agreement (reported in that Oregonian story) on the acceptability of so-called rotating tri-vision billboards.
What remains unclear as this item is posted is precisely what Clear Channel ultimately might have received out of the negotiations, especially since the current agreements did not include allowing the tri-vision billboards.
As reported in the earlier Oregonian story, the previous tentative deal also would have allowed "the ability of billboards to be moved around within the cap and designated zones" -- a benefit whose fate in the most recent set of agreements is also unclear as of this posting.
"I entered the negotiations with Clear Channel," Leonard's statement reads, "with the belief that a majority of the city council agreed that the attempted enforcement action against the two artistic murals in SE Portland made it crystal clear that the current code needed to be changed."
However, the statement continues, "It is clear to me now that the support I believed existed simply isn't there at this time."
According to the draft statement, Mayor Katz has herself "developed a strategy that would allow, in her opinion, the legitimizing of community murals such as the two in SE Portland while still prohibiting commercial advertising beyond the limits set in the current sign code."
Just what the nature of this strategy might be and how it manages to stay within the law as interpreted by the Oregon Supreme Court is not clear just yet -- especially since, as negotiations with Clear Channel progressed, the Mayor reportedly argued that changing the City's sign code would not be easy.
Note: My original intention was to hold off on this item until I had comment and reaction from other parties -- including, most obviously, the Mayor. If this were a daily (or worse) print publication, I would have held to that. But the advantage of this particular medium is that I can publish the beginning of a story early, knowing that more is forthcoming as responses come in. As such, watch this site over the next few days for futher developments.
In a comment to this item, Commissioner Leonard correctly points out that the draft statement includes the following: "Clear Channel agreed to these provisions because it allowed them to discontinue expensive and uncertain litigation in addition to the sign code being amended to a more balanced set of regulations allowing their business to operate with certainty within the city."
While I concede that being able to set aside litigation and obtaining sign regulations which would resolve some of the uncertainty and controversy of the current code could be of benefit to Clear Channel -- and, indeed, I should have said as much to begin with, rather than leaving it for the reader to discover for themselves in the pdf of the draft statement -- I have to confess that it strikes me as strange that this is all Clear Channel ultimately would have sought, given that as it stands today, the litigation in question includes a $1.3 million judgement against the City of Portland (which the company was seeking to raise more than four-fold), while the tentative agreement would have required them to pay, rather than receive, money.
This is a question I intend to raise with Clear Channel, should they get back to me this week. Nonetheless, as admitted, I should have included the above portion of the draft statement in this item as originally posted.
Also see the comment for the claim that the Mayor allegedly believed that some number of tri-vision signs would have been acceptable, but that she simply never bothered to offer what that number might be. Although I suspect that tri-vision acceptance would have become one of the most contentious issues as far as public opinion would be concerned.
Back in August, the Portland Tribune published an article which provided some background on the Clear Channel litigation in question:
Clear Channel sued the city in 1999, charging that the billboard ban was detrimental to its business. It ultimately prevailed, winning a $1 million judgment in Multnomah County Circuit Court against the city.
"We're hopeful we can come to an agreement," said Len Bergstein, who is representing Clear Channel in its discussions with Leonard's office. "The city is looking at a multimillion judgment and a code that doesn't work. It doesn't work for the neighborhoods or for the medium."
Bergstein said the multimedia company, which owns five radio stations in Portland as well as billboards, has tried to reach a settlement over the years to reduce the "impact on muralists and onerous impact on the company."
Just to tide readers over with some additional background, while we await a more direct response from Clear Channel to the halt in the latest negotiations. See also the email exchanges between Metro Murals and Commissioner Leonard's office from the period between August and October 2003.
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