Hats off to the Indianapolis Star's Brian Eason for presenting a very lengthy, fair and balanced story today raising serious concerns about the manner in which the billboard industry hired a team of powerful Indianapolis lobbyists, circumvented the normal zoning process and got friends on the City-County Council to introduce an industry-friendly zoning ordinance it wants the Metropolitan Development Commission to adopt.
The story titled "Digital billboards under glare of ethics concerns in Indy" traces the origins of the backroom deal-making by the billboard industry and their lobbyists with key members of the City-County Council, including the chairman of the Metropolitan & Economic Development Committee, LeRoy Robinson, and the flow of large campaign contributions into those key members' campaign committees courtesy of the billboard industry's lobbyists. Eason's story astutely observes the sordid process undertaken here was not all that atypical of what happens at the State House all the time, even if unusual for the local City-County Council:
. . . ."The layers of absurdity just pile on top of each other," said David Hittle, the land use chair of the Near Eastside Community Organization. "The billboard industry is writing the regulations that would regulate the billboard industry."
The path of Proposition 250, which seeks to reverse a ban on digital billboards in Marion County, might not look out of place at the Statehouse, where interest groups routinely draft legislation and court sponsors. But at the local level, it's not only uncommon — it's in some ways the exact opposite of how the process typically works.
Normally, major changes to the city planning and zoning ordinances would be crafted at the Department of Metropolitan Development staff level, move to the Metropolitan Development Commission and then end at the council for an up or down vote.
This time, the City-County Council started the process with a resolution asking the commission to consider the changes. And, rather than give industry groups one of several seats at the table while planners write the first draft, city staff would only look at it after the council has given its stamp of approval to the wording the industry wants.
Neighborhood groups fear this will put political pressure on city planners to use language favorable to the industry, rather than considering what's best for the city . . .Eason's story calls out members by name who have received campaign contributions from the billboard industry's lobbyists, including Robinson, Zach Adamson, Council President Maggie Lewis, Minority Leader Michael McQuillen and Minority Whip Marilyn Pfisterer. Council members bristled at the suggestion the campaign money influenced their decision to keep the controversial measure alive rather than vote it down outright. Robinson denied having any direct involvement in the proposed ordinance other than chairing the meeting at which it was heard. "People I think are inherently suspicious when they see a trail of money coming from some place," Adamson said. "The fact of the matter is, elections cost money. ... So the question is, do you say, 'no, sorry, I can't take this?'" Lewis said her campaign treasurer handles her campaign receipts so she doesn't appear to be influenced by them. McQuillen suggested the council's Ethics Committee investigate the matter if it thought members had violated ethics rules.
The blow back from the overwhelming opposition to the proposed ordinance and the unusual process it has followed appears to have poisoned the well if it ever manages to make it before the full council for consideration so much that it's unlikely to win passage. The City's zoning staff intends to study and draft a revised ordinance once it completes its Rezone Indy initiative later this spring. The proposal's sponsor, Mary Moriarty-Adams, refused to return calls the reporter made to her seeking comment. Many of her colleagues told Eason, however, they would prefer she voluntarily withdraw it from further consideration.
UPDATE: Advance Indiana has received an e-mail sent by John Kisiel, a lobbyist for Clear Channel, which wound up with a wider distribution than Kisiel intended. More interesting, see the lobbyist's assessment of where council members stood on the issue a year ago below.
Sent: Monday, February 24, 2014 3:03 PM
Subject: Digital Billboard Resolution
Below is the lobbyist's assessment of council member's leanings on the issue last year when things first got rolling:
ZACH ADAMSON (D) ) Noncommittal, tough reelection fight may impact but he is tech savvy guy
FRANK MASCARI (D) Yes - sponsor
JOHN BARTH (D) Noncommittal, positive bias company buys billboards
JANICE MCHENRY (R) NO
VERNON BROWN (D) Noncommittal - one day yes another I don't know
MICHAEL J. MCQUILLEN (R) Yes
VIRGINIA J. CAIN (R) Yes - sponsor
MARY MORIARTY ADAMS (D) Noncommittal - supporter of Marion County Fairgrounds and would probably
like digital at Fairgrounds for revenue
JOSE M EVANS (R) Yes
WILLIAM C. OLIVER (D) Unknown - no return calls or e-mails
AARON FREEMAN (R) Yes - R lead sponsor
MONROE GRAY, JR. (D) Noncommittal negative bias
VOP OSILI (D) Noncommittal positive bias (Councillor Simpson believes he is a yes but voted for ban in 2006)
WILL GOODEN (R) Yes - offered to sponsor
MARILYN PFISTERER (R) No - concerns about impact on neighborhoods
PAMELA L. HICKMAN (D) Yes - sponsor
LEROY ROBINSON (D) Yes - Chair of Committee where this will likely land
JASON HOLLIDAY (R) Noncommittal negative bias
BEN HUNTER ( R ) Yes - very strong supporter
JACK SANDLIN (R) Noncommittal, positive bias. Councillor Freeman says he will vote yes
MAGGIE A. LEWIS (D) Noncommittal, positive bias - likes public safety element
CHRISTINE SCALES (R) Noncommittal, negative bias
ROBERT B. LUTZ (R) Yes -
JEFFERSON SHREVE (R) Yes - may have issue as lessor for CCO and JR promotions
BRIAN MAHERN (D) Noncommittal
JOSEPH SIMPSON (D) Yes - D Lead sponsor and strong supporter
ANGELA MANSFIELD (D) Non committal - strong negative bias. Hates Lamar billboard at 86th and Ditch
STEVE TALLEY (D) Noncommittal - concerned about neighborhoods' position
JEFF MILLER Yes -BUT, he may have issue with neighborhoods has positive e-poll he conducted