Dependable Erection

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sleazeball tactics

So i got an email yesterday telling me about a press conference in downtown Durham on behalf of the billboard "industry" and their ongoing attempts to have Durham's current billboard ordinance overturned. For about 20 years, after several court battles upheld Durham's right to ban new billboards through zoning ordinances, seemed like everybody was OK with that status quo. Then a new technology arrived, digital billboards, essentially giant flat-screen TVs for your highways, capable of showing new images every 10 or 15 seconds or so, the industry suddenly saw massive revenue streams available, and began pushing for modifications to the ordinance. "We just want to be able to replace a handful of our existing, rundown billboards with some of these new ones," they said. They offered access to some not-for-profit groups for occasional 10 second messages. They said that digital billboards were no more a traffic safety risk than conventional billboards.

Well, the jury's still out on that last one, since the study that came to that conclusion was, not surprisingly, funded by the industry, and objective evaluations of it cast doubt on its methodologies and conclusions. The full evidence isn't in yet, of course, but it's not looking good for the industry. Which probably explains why they're pushing so hard to get Durham's ban overturned. It'll be a lot harder to get of these things once they're installed, if the data shows that they're unsafe, than it will be to keep them from going up in the first place.

So anyway, didn't pay much attention to the press conference announcement since they've been doing this for three years.

Until i saw an email on the PAC 2 list asking if the PACs had endorsed the industry's position on overturning the billboard ordinance. WTF?

Quick digression - PAC stands for Partners Against Crime. There are 5 of them in Durham, roughly corresponding to the 5 police districts in town. I live in PAC 2, and i probably get to a couple of PAC meetings a year. It is a specifically non-political group in which citizens, police representatives, and city department heads interact and discuss concerns (street lighting, garbage pickup, maintenance issues, landlord/tenant conflicts, etc.) that can have impacts on crime and safety in neighborhoods. The PAC 2 website may not be completely up to date, but a review of the minutes of its meetings does not indicate that the issue of billboards was ever taken up.

So what gives?

Apparently, there's another PAC. It's called City-Wide PAC, and it consists of a meeting among the facilitators of the 5 distract PACs. And it was as a representative of this group that Wanda Boone, founder of Durham TRY, was speaking at yesterday's press conference. We'll get into some of the ironies of a group whose mission is to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors getting into bed with the billboard industry later. But for now, let's go to the videotape:
"Digital billboard technology is a wonderful tool" in locating missing persons and catching crooks, said Wanda Boone, representing Partners Against Crime at a press conference announcing the campaign this morning.

We've established that Wanda Boone presented herself as representing Partners Against Crime. How did that happen?

Here's an email from current PAC district 2 co-facilitator Bill Anderson:
Just returned from the City Wide PAC a couple hours ago, which is a monthly meeting of the 5 PAC Co-Facilitators. Often these meetings are very important, and should, theoretically, tie the five Police Districts together from a Partners Against Crime standpoint. I've never seen another company represented there before, or after, but sure enough...

A couple months ago, the attorney representing Fairway Advertising was there to pitch their case. At the end of the presentation, they requested PAC support. I objected as strongly as possible, mostly on the grounds that none of the PAC leaders could claim to know how their members would vote, and in essence, this would only be the opinion of the five individuals present, and WOULD NOT REPRESENT the PACs they lead.

I forced a vote to create a rule that City Wide PAC should NEVER vote on ANYTHING when the members of each of the individual PACs had not at least voted at their monthly meeting. That vote went south (3/2) and no such rule was created.

With PAC3's Patty Cloninger and I staring dumbfounded at each other across the table, and Melvin Whitley smiling like a Cheshire cat at the end, they took the vote to another predictable 3/2, and Chair Harold Chesnut gave that company permission to claim that City Wide PAC endorses it.

Marion Lamberth, PAC 5, Wanda Boone PAC 1, and Harold Chestnut, PAC 4 ~ IN FAVOR

Patty Coninger, PAC 3 and Bill Anderson, PAC 2 ~ AGAINST

I was powerless to stop this insane vote, cited the DCVB survey, but mostly general process. Mind you, the above folks are community leaders, and City Wide PAC often serves a good purpose, but that evening, in my opinion, it erred dramatically.

So, the company left with permission to claim City Wide PAC support, and I reserve the right to explain to the best of my ability, how they got it.

This is the first I've seen of Wanda's quote, so this is the first time I've explained what I bore witness to that evening.

Are you taking notes? Because this is important. Fairway Outdoor Advertising pitched itself to a meeting of the 5 facilitators of the PACs throughout the city, and asked for their endorsement of Fairway's billboard proposal. They didn't go to the individual PACs, and they didn't ask the facilitators to go back to their groups to obtain their endorsements. They got three people to approve their resolution, and then got those three people to put "City-Wide Partners Against Crime" behind their names.

Still paying attention? Because this is still important. You looked at the Durham TRY website linked above, right? You noticed that big billboard promoting Durham TRY, space donated by Fairway, right in the middle of the page, with a big "Thank You Fairway!" tag below it, right? OK. That's Wanda Boone's group. (And we'll still talk about the irony of a group devoted to keeping alcohol away from underage youth getting in bed with the billboard industry later.)

Let's go back to the videotape again:
The InterNeighborhood Council has gone on record opposing Fairway's request, but Fairway General Manager Paul Hickman said the council is not representative of the county as a whole. The INC lists 31 neighborhoods as members, out of more than 100 registered with the city/county planning department.

Now, you may remember a while back, the Inter-Neighborhood Council was the first group that Fairway and its partners attempted to persuade to get on board its campaign. At the time, Craigie Sanders was the INC president. Craigie, as it happens, is also an attorney at the firm representing Fairway, K&L Gates. One of my favorite of Craigie's moves as INC president was when he invited his fellow Gates attorney Patrick Byker to pay dues for the dormant Rockwood Neighborhood Association and become its representative to the INC, which backfired when other neighbors became aware of this and revitalized their Neighborhood Association as a result.

So - another brief digression. Inter-Neighborhood Council (with or without the hyphen) is another group in Durham that meets monthly, and invites all recognized neighborhood and homeowners associations in Durham to be members. It often takes positions on controversial issues, but in a somewhat more transparent fashion than the "City-Wide PAC" we talked about earlier. A neighborhood may ask for an INC endorsement of a position on, say, changing the billboard ordinance. A resolution will be drafted during a first meeting. At the next meeting, or sometimes even the next two meetings, information will be presented about the impacts of the proposal, and proponents and opponents will be invited to speak. INC delegates go back to their neighborhoods and discuss the various presentations and positions, and other neighborhood residents are welcome to attend INC meetings if they want firsthand information. The resolution may be amended or rewritten. Eventually, a vote is taken and INC's position is established. It may not be the prettiest process, and it may not be the timeliest process, but it would be fair to say that it provides for a significant amount of participation among Durham residents who are interested in the issue at hand.

Unlike, say, getting three industry supporters into a room and having them vote on an issue with no discussion amongst their constituents.

So when Fairway General Manager Paul Hickman says the council is not representative of the county as a whole, while standing next to Wanda Boone, who he knows does not represent the city as a whole, we are safe in describing his tactics as disingenuous, sleazy, underhanded, and reprehensible. At this point it would be reasonable to ask Mr. Hickman what percentage of Durham's billboard advertising revenues are generated by alcohol advertising, and more specifically, by alcohol ads placed in Durham's at-risk communities, specifically along Alston Ave. and US 70 in East Durham? And what percentage and total revenues do they anticipate the new "digital" billboards will generate in those same areas? And then it would be reasonable to ask Wanda Boone why it is that her group is willing to sell itself to the billboard industry, which is one of the prime vectors for alcohol advertising aimed at at-risk young people, the same people her organization claims to be trying to reach, for the price of a few free billboard ads? Could it be that Durham TRY is more interested in establishing its organizational position in the political landscape than in actually getting kids to postpone alcohol consumption? Because if that was their true goal, eliminating outdoor advertising for alcohol would be a much more effective tactic than merely subbing one out of every 4 Crown Royal ads with Durham TRY PSA, wouldn't it?

Noted: Kevin wakes up much earlier than i do.

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  • Barry-
    Thanks for writing on this. It pisses me off that we have to go through this one more time with Fairway.

    Durham's citizens have made it clear that we don't want billboards. It's quite obvious that Fairway is simply trying to wear us all down to the point that we stop following this issue. It is imperative that we all write out councilors and commissioners (yet again) and let them know where we stand on the issue.

    By Blogger Rob, at 12:07 PM  

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