Op-ed: City staff should not be in service to the billboard lobby 
Rendering of one of the planned downtown buildings for a digital billboard to be installed by San Jose. Photo courtesy of No Digital Billboards in San Jose.

In San Jose’s enthusiasm to bring us digital billboards, city staff have ruthlessly dismissed one of the biggest accomplishments of the man for whom San Jose International Airport is named: Norman Y. Mineta.

While mayor of San Jose in 1972, Mineta supported the ban on new billboards on public property and helped usher in policies that have stood for 50 years—codifying the belief that taking down and preventing the proliferation of billboards would beautify the city and encourage economic development.

Today, the airport and city staff are working tirelessly to sell out San Jose and corrupt Mineta’s legacy in their ignominious quest to construct 1,000 square-foot, double-sided billboards—three digital, one vinyl—that would provide revenue amounting to only a tiny fraction of 1% of the airport’s annual operating budget.

Given the many seemingly intractable and controversial problems confronting San Jose, one would think dealing with billboards would be easy. Easy for the Airport Commission to again say no to digital billboards at their upcoming Jan. 26 special meeting, and easy for the City Council to say no to digital billboards on landmark public buildings downtown probably in February.

But the reality is, despite overwhelming public opposition to new billboards—93% according to the city’s own survey of more than 2,000 respondents—since 2015 the city has spent at least $2 million of our taxpayer dollars on this initiative.

Multiple city agencies have been greasing the skids for the introduction of digital off-premise advertising—billboards hawking soda and cell phones—first on public property and later on private property. We’re talking about 22 or more digitals on public buildings downtown, at the airport and eventually, if the powerful billboard lobby has its way, 75 more on freeway-facing private property sites throughout San Jose.

The arguments raised by billboard proponents such as revenue for the city, removal of old existing billboards and a boost to the local economy have been debunked. What might not be known is that city staff, not so much the elected members of the City Council, have been the force behind the scenes preaching the virtues of digital billboards and working overtime to fulfill the agenda of the billboard industry.

Clearly, two different world views are in conflict. Community members understand that San Jose’s historic character, architectural integrity and natural environment will be inexorably compromised by permitting 100 new digital billboards, dominating the very essence of our public and private landscape.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Planning Department, Office of Economic Development and the City Manager’s Office don’t share the values of the city residents for whom they work. They hold different assumptions, process information differently and end up with their own set of facts that are the foundation for imposing a reign of commercial advertising on our city.

Here’s what we mean by that. In the city approved document that purported to respond to public comment regarding the proposed digital billboards at the airport, we are asked to believe the following statement:

“…the project would not result in significant aesthetics impacts.” P. 153.  

Whether you support or oppose 60 foot high, 1,000 square feet digital billboards flashing soda and cell phone advertisements, who would doubt such entities towering into the air adjacent to the airport would result in no significant aesthetic impacts? If the proposed billboards do not, what would?

Similarly, we are asked by the airport staff to take seriously the following about the intended billboards:

“The proposed project is not a phase of a larger project. It is a stand-alone proposal for two electronic billboards at the Airport and it is not linked to other past or future billboard considerations.” P. 179.  

This is a total denial of reality and could only be true if the airport were not an agency of the city which, of course, it is.

Another classic example below is the kind of thinking all too often articulated by our civil servants who apparently live in an alternative reality.

“an electronic sign that is visible from two sides is considered as one sign.” P. 18.  

Such thinking asks us to believe that the two v-shaped, two-sided signs proposed at the airport add up not to four, but only two signs. You can bet the billboard company will be collecting the revenue from not two but four signs—4,000 square feet total—regardless of how the city defines a sign. Alas, many of our appointed officials can no longer tell the difference between empirically verifiable, data-driven, evidence-based public policy and the seductive allure of special interest talking points.

At the end of the day, the responsibility to impose order on San Jose’s out of control public bureaucracy is in the hands of the City Council. They must reign in wayward agencies, who in the case of digital billboards, have for too long justified their blatant contempt for the public interest by informing us they were just following the council’s orders. More accurately, they are following the orders of the billboard lobby on a path that will turn this city into a place we will no longer want to call home.

But, if the council allows digital billboards at the airport, perhaps it should be called “Chuck Reed International,” after the former mayor who most befittingly is now a lobbyist for billboard company Orange Barrel Media.

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

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