Thursday, July 27, 2017 This Week's Paper

Reporting Tacoma’s billboard blight has gone mobile

Local blogger, web designer and community activist Kevin Freitas has put his effort to spruce up Tacoma into the hands of anyone with a smartphone.

The man behind the community news aggregator has created a mobile-friendly web page that allows Tacoma residents, workers and casual visitors to the City of Destiny to report the location and condition of unkempt billboards directly from their smartphones rather than jotting down information to be then submitted to the City of Tacoma’s complaint system.

With a few thumb taps on a web-enabled smartphone, the application allows people to fill out an online form that notes the GPS coordinates, the billboard number, and the specific code violation such as litter or torn or structurally unsound. The information is then sent to the city code enforcement office as well as kept in a database so results can be charted.

“It’s kind of a way to ensure accountability and transparency,” Freitas said, noting that the system will send the violation finder a receipt so the person knows a complaint has been sent properly. “I am always about enabling people to have their say.”

The City of Tacoma’s Tacoma Cares e-mail reporting system does not currently offer a submission receipt and even found itself having to admit that several months of code enforcement complaints filed by residents through its email system were lost. Alongside the complaint form, viewers of the web page Freitas designed will find the legal description of what the city code says about billboard violations in an effort to inform resident about the issue of unkempt signs and the law.

While the current version of Freitas’ violation-reporting system only includes descriptions of billboard ordinances, it is not outside the realm of possibilities that upgrades could include ways for people to report junked cars, pot holes, abandoned political signs, excessive litter or illegal dump sites, chipped sidewalks or other code violations.

“I would absolutely think about doing that for the city,” he said.

But billboards around the city, largely owned by Clear Channel, have been the biggest targets thus far, including on Freitas’ ongoing web series "Hey, Clear Channel! Clean Up Your Crap.” The web rant documents billboards that seem abandoned, are surrounded by litter or are otherwise in need of repairs.

Billboards have been a matter of debate around Tacoma for more than a decade now. The city first set a framework in 1997 to have many of them removed by 2007. But then Clear Channel sued the city on freedom of speech grounds. Clear Channel and city officials then negotiated a deal that would have removed some signs in exchange for digital billboards. That 2010 plan was later blasted by residents who simply wanted the signs removed entirely. A new billboard ordinance was approved in August.

A deadline to remove some 190 billboards around the city came and went last month after City Manager T. C. Broadnax announced in March that the city would not enforce the new rules until the end of the year. This, he explained, was to save money for the cash-strapped city because of the likely long and expensive legal challenge Clear Channel would likely mount.

While the city has postponed enforcing the new ordinance, it has committed to continue to cite billboard violations that are deemed blight or hazards to public safety.

Community booster, lawyer, editor of the Tacoma Urbanist website and outspoken opponent of billboards Erik Bjornson noted that the anti-billboard blight app Freitas created is a useful tool for people to use, but the real challenge might be apathy.

“One of the biggest problems Tacomans have is that we have become acclimated to blight,” he said, noting the large number of potholes, illegal dump sites, litter, decaying roadways and sidewalks found around the city. “There are hundreds of things out of compliance in the city, and sometimes it takes a citizen complaint for the city to take action. Every block has something big and bad that plagues it.”

Billboards, he said, are just the most obvious.

“They really impact the skyline,” he said. “The only people I know of who like billboards are the owners and advertisers. Everyone else thinks of them as blight. What you really have is very large garbage on a stick all throughout the city.”

Having the City Council pass tougher billboard ordinances only to have a city manager announce the rules won’t be enforced doesn’t help matters, either. Doing that tells residents that their voices weren’t heard, he said, noting that the city doesn’t seem to even be taking action against the dozen or so billboards it owns or has on its city property that fall afoul of the ordinances.

While Clear Channel is the target of the application’s blight reporting, officials there say they welcome the input from residents when their signs seem to violate city rules.

“We think this can be a real positive,” spokesman Jim Cullinan said. “Most of the checks we do are with our own eyes. If we see something, we fix it.”

But there are hundreds of Clear Channel billboards in the region, and a big windstorm or downpour could create an unsightly issue that could otherwise go unaddressed until it is spotted or until someone complains.

“Not everything is known immediately,” he said, noting that Freitas’ efforts will hopefully shorten the timeline between when a billboard becomes damaged and when it gets fixed.

Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, Inc., the publicly traded, billboard arm of Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, is one of the world's largest outdoor advertising companies with close to one million displays in more than 40 countries across five continents.

If you do not have a smartphone, report billboard complaints by e-mailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call (253) 591-5001.