Friday, January 29, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Stakeholders to consider digital billboards

Billboard owners are asking City Council for permission to modernize their billboards by making them digital. On Thursday, Council approved a resolution setting up a stakeholder process to try to reach some agreement about whether the city should allow digital billboards and what kind of regulations would be appropriate.

One group that has always opposed digital billboards – and has lobbied to make sure that no new billboards are ever erected in the city – is Scenic Austin. Architect Girard Kinney has been the group’s spokesman for a number of years. On Thursday, Kinney was accompanied by some new lobbyists for the cause, including former Council Member Sheryl Cole.

Andrew Romero, vice president of the Austin Police Association political action committee, said Thursday that his organization is part of a pro-digital billboard group called SignOnAustin Light On Austin. If Council members decide to allow digitization, APA would like them to add to city code a section allowing the police to have access to those billboards 24 hours a day, he said, in order to update the public on public safety information.

For example, Romero said police could give warnings about “floods, travel issues, missing children, violent crimes that we need help with – anything that is a legitimate public safety concern.” He compared it to getting information on a smartphone.

“We’re advocating for digital technology because of the public safety aspect of it,” Romero told the Austin Monitor. “Most large cities have (digital billboards). What most large cities haven’t done is given the police control of them when there was an exigent situation. And that’s what we want to do differently. We want to harness this technology and use it for the public good.”

According to the resolution, which was amended by Council Member Leslie Pool, “There are many stakeholders in the city who participated in billboard discussions in the past and want to participate in the discussion as to whether amendments to the site regulations to permit digital billboards are appropriate.”

Stakeholder meetings should include representatives from “scenic groups, neighborhood associations, bicycle community, pedestrian advocates and representatives of the billboard business community,” the resolution states.

In a written statement, Kinney told the Monitor that Scenic Austin is pleased with Council’s support for a stakeholder process. “We plan to engage in a robust community conversation,” he wrote. “We are confident that the community will demand a sign policy that is in line with Scenic Texas’s goal of working to reduce billboard blight in Texas, and to stop the construction of new billboards wherever possible.”

Stricken from the original resolution was language directing the city manager to develop a proposed ordinance to allow digital signage. That resolution was heard by the Council Public Safety Committee but passed on to the full Council without a recommendation.

Sheryl Cole is on the Capital of Texas Media Foundation board of directors.

Photo by David Evers from Amsterdam, Netherlands (Egyptian billboard study #6) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin City Council Public Safety Committee: A City Council committee that reviews safety issues, including code enforcement, disaster preparedness and criminal justice.

Austin Police Association: The organization that represents Austin Police officers.

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