After facing a meeting packed with angry residents, the Placentia City Council on Tuesday backed away from a proposal to erect five electronic billboards next to homes along State Route 57.
In a 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Connie Underhill opposing, council members indefinitely postponed a decision on a zoning change that would allow billboards on city property.
The residents were mainly upset because plans for the billboards, one of which would go up in a residential cul-de-sac and another next to a children’s playground in a park, were seemingly being pushed through with little community discussion.
There are also concerns, revealed Tuesday by Voice of OC, that a lobbyist for the winning bidder on the project was allowed to shape the proposal process.
“You guys are putting stuff out so fast that we don’t have a chance to react to it as citizens,” said Stanley Nelson, a resident of La Jolla, a largely Latino neighborhood where most of the billboards would go.
Added Joshua Correa, another La Jolla resident: “What are the other opportunities that we as a city can pursue other than advertising billboards that go against the grain of our motto and who we are as a community.”
Such comments resonated with Mayor Scott Nelson, who earlier in the week indicated he was comfortable with how city staff handled the issue.
“I think ultimately what happens is we are going to continue to need to do some more outreach,” Nelson said. “I would also like to see workshops set up and noticed that everybody, who has the opportunity to, can attend.”
Councilman Chad Wanke said he sympathized with the residents’ concerns.
“If I was in a park and there was this huge billboard above me, it’d kind of freak me out,” said Wanke, one of two council members who had been openly questioning city management’s approach.
Wanke and some residents are also alarmed over the revelation that city management had allowed a paid lobbyist for the winning bidder to shape the bidding process.
“If there was no conflict of interest, why was this information not revealed to the public at the start of the process?” asked resident Jeff Buchanan, referring to the fact that city staff never mentioned the lobbyist in their public descriptions of the process.
“We definitely have ethical concerns with the issues that have been brought up with the consultants and proposals,” said Councilman Jeremy Yamaguchi, who had joined Wanke in questioning the process before the meeting.
While not discussing the lobbyist’s role, City Administrator Troy Butzlaff defended the billboards’ proposed locations, saying, “This is the only area we really can site these.”
Others at the meeting questioned why so many billboards needed to be placed along the short stretch of the freeway that runs through the city.
Two speakers did support the billboards, pointing to the $725,000 in revenue as a boon to the city’s troubled coffers.
It’s “a good revenue stream for us,” said Dwayne DeRose, a member of the city’s chamber of commerce. “I think advertising, for us, would be a victory.”
City finances have been strained in recent years, with pressure this year to close a $1.5-million budget deficit.
Underhill, the only council member who still wanted to vote on the zoning change Tuesday, lamented the postponement.
If the zoning change had been approved, “we would have had an opportunity to have a dialogue with Lamar,” the winning bidder, about what the community wants. “So we’re basically nowhere except everybody’s had a chance to air some concerns.”
Some of her colleagues, however, want an overhaul of the entire process.
“I’d like to see this opened up to an RFP [request for proposals],” said Councilman Chad Wanke, referring to a formal bidding process between companies. “At least we’ll know that we’re using the city’s property at its highest and best use.”
He added that the lack of public engagement by city management gave the impression that the city was “trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”
Mayor Nelson, meanwhile, credited city staff for seeking new revenue sources.
“At least they’re out there looking,” he said.