The city’s approved settlement with Clear Channel Outdoor over a federal lawsuit about billboards came up quickly and quietly, added as a last minute agenda item to last week’s council meeting a few hours after the council met to discuss the issue in a closed-door executive session.
(The settlement, which we wrote about here and here, essentially would allow Clear Channel to build as many as 36 new digital billboards in the city if it removes up to 240 current billboards and relinquishes up to 169 permits it now holds to build new ones. City officials have said if maxed out, the deal would remove as much as 85 percent of current billboards. The settlement also means Clear Channel would drop its federal lawsuit alleging constitutional violations against the city’s 1997 ordinance that called for large billboards to be removed by 2007.)
At last week’s council meeting, after Mayor Marilyn Strickland read a lengthy statement explaining details of the settlement, the council voted unanimously — and without discussion — to approve the deal’s terms.
Ever since, several council members have been reluctant to speak with me about the settlement — either by not returning my calls, offering no comment for the record, or, speaking very carefully and/or generally about the issue (In general, some members have told me the settlement is a good deal that will take most billboards off the street and largely protect the residential atmosphere of most neighborhoods, plus end an ongoing and costly lawsuit).
The council’s handling of the issue is reminiscent of its process to name finalists for appointment to two open council seats earlier this year. After a closed-door meeting, the council emerged from an executive session then, and, without discussion, unanimously approved eight finalists from more than 40 applicants to advance in the appointment process. The News Tribune ultimately filed a lawsuit over the council’s actions then, winning a first-of-its-kind court ruling that ordered the council to audio record any further closed sessions regarding the appointment. On Sunday, Peter Callaghan opined about the similarities of the council’s actions then with last week’s billboard settlement.
Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s Office, told me last week he won’t go so far as to say whether the council’s executive session actions this time around were or weren’t legal without knowing more about what went on behind closed doors. But, the council’s in-public actions certainly raise questions, he said.
“Whenever there’s some lack of (public) discussion, I always have a question as to why,” Ford said. “I think where there’s an opportunity where they could hold some discussion, then they should.”
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