Scores of people wearing T-shirts with QR codes flooded the Westminster City Council chambers on Tuesday night, all with one thing to say:
“Save the Luong family business.”
The business in question: A single static billboard on Maple Avenue, overlooking the 405 Freeway and located by a private storage facility a few blocks up from the Westminster Mall.
Its owner: Jacko Luong, who with his wife Christina and two daughters – during that night’s regular meeting – asked council members to extend their billboard’s permit, and thus their source of income, while city staff say they refuse to on the basis of state law.
“We just want to be treated fairly,” said Jacko Luong, 45, at the meeting.
Meanwhile, city officials are looking to billboards for a revenue stream of their own.
That prompted the Luongs, alongside scores of speakers during public comment last Tuesday, to question whether the city’s denial comes from another reason entirely.
Can Billboards Support City Finances?
At a meeting seven months ago, city staff presented council members with revenue generating options to help climb out of a structural budget deficit that – until voters approved a buzzer-beater sales tax measure in November – threatened the city with bankruptcy and a severe blow to public services by 2024.
Among the options presented at the time:
The billboard market.
“Partnering with other billboard operators could generate substantial revenue annually. Some of the contracts we’re seeing in other agencies in Southern California are out to 30 years,” said Assistant City Manager Adolfo Ozaeta during the June 8 meeting. “A recent one for 15 years is guaranteeing (a nearby agency) $30 million.”
Ozaeta then pointed to the upcoming expiration of permits for certain billboards around town like the Luongs’, which were issued on the basis of state redevelopment law.
When Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved redevelopment agencies in 2011, such billboards were to be removed but not instantly.
Lawmakers gave billboard operators up and down the state a 10-year grace period, ending at the start of this year.
But the law allows extension requests, the kind which the Luong family and supporters in the audience requested on Tuesday.
One way Luong says he can extend his billboard business, past the expiration of the redevelopment agency permit, is through an Outdoor Advertising Act permit with CalTrans.
The state transit agency, however, denied Luong’s application, citing the billboard’s location within a 405 Freeway improvement project. Luong has appealed that denial, but is seeking the extension with City Hall with the idea of biding time until the freeway project’s completion.
At the earlier June council meeting, Ozaeta proposed the idea to “convert redevelopment agency billboards to electronic billboards,” as part of the city’s revenue increase effort. “We’re looking at billboards along the 22 and the 405 freeways that currently do not generate revenue for the city. That’s just a fact.”
Luong said he pays the city $500 a year plus .01% of gross receipts.
Level Playing Field?
Family supporters who showed up at the Tuesday meeting – friends, other family members, colleagues – counted the Luongs’ contributions in other ways, through stories of kindness to strangers, as well as the family’s involvement in community groups.
“I feel like we’ve been here to be good citizens and contribute positively to this community,” said Christina Luong, an emergency room nurse, through tears at the public comment podium.
“Our billboard has been in this community for a decade. It supports other small businesses, advertises other small businesses in the community.”
Ryan Neptune, one speaker who identified himself as a non resident but an “Orange County native,” said an end to the family’s business “sets an unfortunate precedent for the City of Westminster, a city that has been built on, and thrived because of, small family businesses like theirs.”
He asked council members to “work with the Luongs to find a solution which allows them to continue providing for their family and bring business in and create revenue for the City of Westminster.”
City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen denied any notion of billboard competition after the public comment section at last week’s city council meeting.
“The city has done nothing in this case to target any particular single person or billboard, nor does this have anything to do with trying to compete,” said Bettenhausen, adding the city was only complying with “mandatory state law.”
“It affects a number of billboards in the city, not just one billboard that you’re talking about.”
Bettenhausen acknowledged the permit extension option.
“Yes it is true that state law … does provide for limited possibility for short term extension, but that is something the council cannot just grant — the state law has some very specific findings that need to be made. Moreover, in evaluating this request, the city needs to very carefully treat everyone the same. Most importantly the granting of extension is subject to CalTrans approval. We’re simply trying to follow the law,” Bettenhausen said.
The city attorney added that any authorized billboard in town will have to follow “a standard process of approval that includes public hearings, which obtain input from the surrounding people, property owners … it also includes approval from the state, which is completely beyond the city’s control.”
On multiple occasions, he denied assertions of competitive motives at City Hall.
In a twist, however, several remote speakers like residents Amy Walsh and Jodi Boyd called into the Tuesday meeting via Zoom and said city staff had accidentally dropped them into a portion of the closed session that regularly occurs prior to the public session.
Behind closed doors, Walsh and Boyd said they got an accidental look at a legally sensitive meeting where city council members and staff were discussing the Luong billboard issue.
Boyd said she “remained” in the wrong meeting on Zoom for approximately five to seven minutes – “enough time to listen in and also observe the powerpoint slide deck that was open on the left side of my screen.”
“And you know what? It absolutely supports what the Luong family and all their supporters and the sea of red and white t-shirts before you are saying. This is absolutely incredible — why on earth would the City of Westminster be trying to steamroll over a small business, in fact a minority-owned business?” Boyd said during public comment.
Asked to comment on that night’s technical mishap, City Manager Christine Cordon said the following in a text message:
“Anyone who may have seen a portion of the slides only saw a portion of the presentation, and therefore, would not have the full context. It would be irresponsible to make assertions without knowing the full picture.”
Bettenhausen didn’t respond to the speakers’ closed session claims from the dais that evening.
The issue wasn’t on the agenda for discussion that night per state open meeting laws. Council members thus took no action that night on the issue. From the dais, officials also limited their remarks because they said Luong retained legal counsel.
In a text message, Luong said no legal action has been sought yet and that he’s in the process of appealing the permit denial by CalTrans.
At the podium, Luong said city officials “have been aware for a while of our willingness to convert the sign to digital and share the revenue with the city. In fact, in 2018, we submitted an application for just that, but we’re still waiting for CalTrans to issue the permit.”
“The city told us they want to get into the billboard business,” Luong continued. “We can compete if the playing field is level. But if the government doesn’t issue a permit, then it’s not. It’s pretty sad.”