Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Star Finally Does Its Job In Reporting On Digital Billboard Shenanigans

UPDATED: See exclusive new information below on the behind-the-scenes discussions among the lobbyists and council leaders

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.

From: "Kisiel, John" <JohnKisiel@clearchannel.com>
Sent: Monday, February 24, 2014 3:03 PM
Subject: Digital Billboard Resolution

Resolution: Attached is the final version of the Resolution regarding digital billboards. Bob Elrod looked at my original version and pared it back to make it more streamlined and more palatable for the Council and I agree with what he has produced.
Timing and Headcount in Caucus: I think we are to a point where we need to get a hard headcount from your respective Caucuses to see who we need to go after in order to get this initial piece through Council at the next meeting in three weeks. I have attached the Resolution along with my most recent assessment of support among the Council members. Please keep my assessment confidential. I thought you should have this so you can also target those members who are still undecided and give you the opportunity to give me updates in case I am wrong in how I am reading the Council. Please talk to the members of your Caucuses and to your Council about whether this can go on the next agenda or how this needs to proceed. Both the Mayor’s office and DMD are aware that we are following this process and we will update them on the timing.
Talking Points: I also attached a brief set of talking points on the 2% Solution to give you some additional background to refer to if asked about the proposal.
I will be at Council tonight in case you want to talk to me about any of this.
Thank you again for your work on this.       

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
VERNON BROWN (D)  Noncommittal - one day yes another I don't know 
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 


Anonymous said...

Those Digital Billboards on the south side are a DANGER to all of us! They are glaring and bright at night and serve as a major distraction and night-blindness for normal people....but for the elderly in the special residences all over that area, they produce chaos!

They are a danger to our city.

Corruption on this issue is now up-front...but we can't count on local authority and the Feds don't want it.


Paul K. Ogden said...

It was pretty sickening how everyone was praising MMA upon finding out she wasn't running for re-election. She's been a huge part of the problem with the council putting special interests ahead of taxpayers.

Anonymous said...

Well, well, well... look at this group of Councilors who call themselves servants of the people... that can only be true if "the people" are defined as the wealthy individuals who own the billboard industry and who can buy politicians via "campaign contributions". LeRoy Robinson, Zach Adamson, Council President Maggie Lewis, Minority Leader Michael McQuillen and Minority Whip Marilyn Pfisterer, and of course, Mary Moriarty Adams (who is keeping her lips zipped at the moment... a rarity for her).

Adamson, who has to be a sure tie with the District 19 Councilor when it comes to speaking out of both sides of his liberal mouth, exudes his oily excuse that "campaigns cost money". Tell that to Richard Nixon who also assured us that he was not a crook.

As for Pfisterer, whom I thought was dead, no one has perfected that shock and repugnance she emotes that anyone would think she could ever be bought or told how to vote. Uh huh...

David Hittle hit a home run that Adamson, Moriaty Adams, Maggie Lewis, et al would actually allow the billboard industry to pen the rules that would regulate the billboard industry. Typical career politician practice IMHO.

But I guess when you are laughing all the way to the bank... hey... what the hell....

Anonymous said...

Your update vindicates my belief that no matter how much that eely Jeff Miller talked out of both sides of his face about the billboard issue, he would absolutely be bought and paid for by these billboard scum and very likely cast a "yes" vote favoring these crony special interests.

Miller, you are a piece of work. This deal in NO WAY betters your constituency. But I bet it does "better" you financially in some way or fashion. You are the poster guy for political hypocrisy.

And as for liberal Democrat Zach Adamson who proves he is cut from the cloth similar to Tammany Hall, it is a damn shame Sally Spiers is his opponent. Almost anyone else could beat the guy but her.

Look at the rest of that list... bought and paid for tools.

Anonymous said...

Adamson is a schmuck as demonstrated by his response to the suggestion that contributions and gifts influence his decision. You should have the decency to at least abstain from voting or participating in a process involving this contributor, or you should return the gift. It doesn't matter if the gift influenced your vote - the simple appearance of such a conflict is unacceptable.
Campaigns do cost money and that's not excuse for taking the low hanging fruit from deep pocketed contributors with glaring business interests that run afoul of those you are supposed to represent. So get off your lazy ass, knock on some doors, pick up the phone, and engage your constituents! You may be surprised how willing folks will be to offer a few bucks to someone who they think will actually represent them in local government. Your attitude on this subject, Mr. Adamson, is the very reason the average voters hate their ballot box choices so much.

Anonymous said...

Hats off to Gary, Paul, Pat, neighborhood leaders and everyone else who helped get the word out on this and motivate people enough to speak up. If only we could mobilize this energy into a common non-partisan voice that spreads the truth and encourages people to pay attention and speak up.
I'm glad the Star finally cranked out a good article on this but they are pretty damn late to the party. This should have been published months ago. I would gladly subscribe again and pay much more to boot if this was the kind of reporting they regularly produced.
Can anyone explain why this story isn't on the Star's home page? Even after a few minutes of searching I can't find it on their website. Perhaps the story ticked off a few elitists?

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:06 proclaims the fact that "Adamson is a schmuck". None of us commenters here could have said it any better.

Anonymous said...

This proves LeRoy Robinson has been and is a "bought and paid for" puppet of lobbyists Carl Drummmer and Greg Hahn.

Mayor Ballard is counting his vote for the train-wreck justice center.

Pete Boggs said...

The Scar likely tripped over the threshold of news reporting, here, in the blogoshpere...

Anonymous said...

While I believe my friend Zach Adamson's quote is dead wrong on this subject, I can tell you that he is no schmuck. He is a hard-working Councillor that takes his job seriously on the Council. As an At-Large Councillor, we worked with him often along with our district Councillor to get things done here in our area of the city...far from where he lives.

While I disagree with his quote, I disagree with your name calling attacks on him. You clearly have no idea of how hard he works as a Councillor. While I disagree with him on this issue, I totally believe he's one of the best examples of what a City-County Councillor should be.

Anonymous said...

I thought Brian Eason's article was well done as well. The internal memo was insightful to say the least...(but keep in mind it was written a year ago.) I believe the memo's headcount of yes, nos and hell nos likely came from council member's informal discussion with lobbyists/others abt the issue. Just because (according to the Kissiel memo's assessment) Jeff Miller was open to digital billboards does not mean he welcomes them today. Miller was instrumental in the alerting neighborhoods that this vote was quickly coming and he was the only NO vote at the Jan 26 2015 hearing. I give him the highest praise for representing the people of Indianapolis. I sleep better at night because city residents have the voice/watchful eyes of a representative like Jeff Miller looking out for the people's interests. (My post is targeted at the highly negative post from 8:30pm on Jeff Miller.)

Onto the bigger topic at hand...I am struggling to get my head around all the questionable ethics exposed by this and related articles. I am struggling to understand why MMA is not withdrawing Proposal 250 but is lobbying for it. For those who wish Proposal 250 be dropped or to allow DMD to review it with no pre-written language, please consider signing a city-wide petition: http://tinyurl.com/DropProp250