Op-ed: Airport Commission should not rubber stamp digital billboards at SJC 
The Mineta San Jose International Airport. File photo by the 111th Group Aerial Photography.

For 36 years San Jose has prohibited new billboards, but soon we may see new super-sized billboards at Mineta San Jose International Airport near Highway 101 and the Guadalupe River Trail, as well as on other city properties.

While the Airport Commission often approves proposals suggested by staff, its value is in exercising independent judgment and not acting as a rubber stamp. Unfortunately, when it comes to digital billboards at SJC, independent judgement is the last thing desired by city officials.

Both the airport staff and the pro-billboard contingent on the City Council are only interested in an uncritical endorsement of their digital billboard scheme. They take that stand despite overwhelming public opposition to digital billboards at the airport and throughout San Jose.

How the airport ‘managed’ the coming of digital billboards

Recently, SJC completed an Environmental Impact Report as part of the revised Airport Master Plan. The EIR totaled over 300 pages and examined every likely development at the airport, except the proposed digital billboards whose exact locations were identified and well known years before the initiation of the airport EIR.

Why were the billboards not included? Airport Commissioner Joe Head certainly thought they should be. Airport planner Cary Greene in an email to staff explained that, “The Airport Master Plan EIR does not apply to the Clear Channel project… A California Environmental Quality Act ‘initial study’ will be prepared for the city by a consultant hired by Clear Channel.”

While technically legal, such arrangements smack of what most people call a conflict of interest.

More fundamentally, why was the “Clear Channel project” exempt from the Airport Master Plan EIR? As we pointed out in our presentation to the Airport Commission at its Aug. 9 meeting, the proposed billboards were not included in the EIR to avoid robust environmental scrutiny.

Instead, an alternate path called an Initial Study Addendum was chosen as a way to navigate through the EIR process. And who paid for that? Clear Channel—the company which depended on a favorable initial study to become the airport’s digital billboard vendor. Of course, we are told such potential conflicts of interest are routine and shouldn’t matter to the public…

The public be damned

The actions of airport staff and Clear Channel suggest that what the public thinks is irrelevant. Both were confident that they could make digital billboards a reality at the airport, bypassing city oversight. For example, Bruce Qualls, Clear Channel vice president and lobbyist, advocated for airport staff and not the city Planning Department to formally manage the process.

To that end, he emailed Rebekah Bray, the SJC’s acting senior property manager, and suggested “the airport director submit a memorandum to City Council for their approval, granting the clear right for the airport staff to review and approve the CEQA analysis and project (instead of going to Planning Commission or City Council for approvals).”

Despite the City Council retaining final approval of proposed billboards, Ms. Bray apparently took pride in how the airport created its own advertising program separate from city oversight. She wrote in an email,  “…we carved out the airport stating that we intended to do our own program for outdoor advertising.”

Furthermore, a presentation at the commission’s August meeting revealed SJC staff’s plan to extend a 2007 contract with Clear Channel as a means to bypass competitive bidding for the airport billboard project. This despite the fact that digital billboards were not approved by the City Council until 2018.

Consequently, it has become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between agents of Clear Channel, who are seeking a contract with the city, and airport staff who should be honest brokers and neutral managers. Instead, the airport has incurred thousands of dollars in staff time on billboards as if they had already received final approval by the Airport Commission and the City Council when clearly they have not.

Blowing off the Airport Commission

Airport staff has not given the commission adequate information regarding the proposed billboards even though the topic had been a planned agenda item since May.

At their August meeting, commissioners registered their disappointment, led by Commission Chair Dan Connolly who reminded airport staff that he asked three months earlier for information on the proposal but received nothing. Commissioner Nick Patel explained that he had to dig through a city website to learn what he knew. Vice Chair Ken Pyle remarked that he had received more documentation on the airport billboard proposal from grassroots groups than from the city or airport staff.

Agreeing with that sentiment, Commissioner Catherine Hendrix believed that the commission “had been kept in the dark” about the details of the proposed billboards. Commissioner Robert Hencken indicated his desire to obtain a staff report prior to submitting a recommendation on the matter to City Council.

Clearly the Airport Commission has been put in an impossible position and consequently should vote thumbs down on the proposal to erect digital billboards at the airport. Doing so would send a message that city commissions cannot be deliberately locked out of the decision-making process, and that commissioners cannot be expected to rubber stamp whatever staff advocates.

In addition, a no vote would make clear that digital billboards are not only detrimental to San Jose’s historic character, architectural integrity and natural environment; they’re also bad for business. To visitors, what will their first impression be of San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, when they are greeted with four gigantic 1,000 square-foot digital billboards flashing ads from national companies?

Accordingly, it is time for the Airport Commission to help Director John Aitken and his airport fiefdom to get out of the digital billboard business. Above all else, our elected officials must learn that public policy cannot be made to satisfy special interests at the expense of the public’s interest.

Jason Hemp, Les Levitt and John Miller are founders of No Digital  Billboards in San Jose.

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