Thanks a Million

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

It's been a while since we checked in on the controversy over illegal billboards and giant signs in Los Angeles.

It's a fight that has been raging here for more than a hundred years, without much in the way of results.

Just look around – LA has more billboards lining its streets than most major cities, seemingly without any aesthetic regulation or principles.

This being LA, a sizable share of the billboards and so-called supergraphics have gone up since City Hall ostensibly banned new signs in 2002.

Politicians generally love the billboard companies' generosity with campaign donations, so enforcement of the ban has not been especially rigorous. And that's being kind.

The years since the ban have seen the arrival of those bright digital billboards you see now at busy intersections.

Also, we've seen the spread of supergraphics.

They used to be found in just a few places, perhaps most notably in Westwood on the side of a medical building facing the San Diego Freeway and drivers on Wilshire Boulevard.

The enforcement joke bubbled up as a hot-button issue in last year's campaign for City Attorney. The previous incumbent, Rocky Delgadillo, had struck the deal that allowed scores of digital billboards to go up legally.

In the race to succeed him, everyone pledged to do something. Last week, the winner, Carmen Trutanich, began to deliver by obtaining an arrest warrant against the owner of a building in Hollywood.

That's when the story got more complicated.

Activists and their blogger allies welcomed the arrest as an indicator that, finally, someone was getting tough. Trutanich told the media that the days of lax enforcement were over.

But his methods ended up stepping on his message. For what are misdemeanor violations of the city code, he got a judge to go along with bail of a million dollars.

That's higher bail than even for some repeat felons who aren't good bets to show up for trial.

Trutanich also timed the arrest for Friday night, meaning the accused violator had to spend three days in jail before ever getting to tell his story to a judge.

Trutanich justified playing hard ball by arguing that the sign towered eight stories above the busy intersection of Hollywood and Highland, making it a threat to public safety.

It also covered the building's windows, posing a danger to occupants in a fire. Besides, the owner had defied warnings not to install the sign, which went up to take advantage of Sunday's Oscars ceremony at the Kodak Theatre.

So it was an aggravated case, to be sure -- but still a misdemeanor code violation. It didn't take a cynic to see politics at play, as in most of the things Trutanich has done so far.

Times columnist Tim Rutten called City Hall's official lawyer a bully with anger management issues, and the judge who OK'd the million dollars bail feeble-willed.

A law professor observed that something hidden had to be going on. Debate over Trutanich's tactics has carried on in the media and on blogs.

In the end, a deal was struck. The accused bad guy got out of jail on a hundred thousand dollars bond after agreeing to take down the sign. If there even is a trial, it will be later.

Advantage Trutanich.

Then this week, the city attorney charged four more lesser violators. Bail for them was set at a less newsworthy amount. Advantage everyone.

Some politicians can learn from their mistakes. Whether anything will really be done to change LA's streetscape – well, let's hope we don’t have to wait another 100 years to find out.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.