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It’s time for Manteca City Council to stand up to CBS’ legal bullies

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POSTED April 22, 2009 3:42 a.m.
There are three two-sided billboards on Moffat Boulevard that are a testimony to the blatant misuse of Congressional power.

The billboards stand on city-owned park property. Manteca doesn’t want the billboards to remain in place.

They respected the contract that was inked with National Advertising Company in 1991 when Union Pacific approved a deal when the railroad still owned the property. Manteca acquired the land in 1997 from the railroad to create the 34-acre linear park known as the Tidewater Bike Path.

On April 16, 2007, the City Council reaffirmed an earlier decision to terminate the lease as allowed under provisions of the original contract.

The City Council served notice on May 1, 2007 to CBS Outdoor — a wholly owned subsidiary of CBS that had acquired the billboards and is the nation’s largest owner of billboards — that it wanted the three two-sided billboards on city property removed.

The legal agreement between the city and the nation’s largest owner of billboards required the billboards to either be removed within 30 days of receiving notice from the city or — if not removed by them — the city could do so and the sign company would have to reimburse the city for the costs of removal as long as it occurred within one year after the 30-day period expired.

That means the city had until June 1, 2008 to remove the billboards that are in the Tidewater Bikeway municipal park and still get CBS to reimburse the costs. It’s been 10 months since the deadline passed yet the billboards still stand.

This is where Congress came into play. The billboard companies got the federal government to put laws in place that CBS apparently believes supersedes a legally binding contract and gives them carte blanche to ignore local government that also happens to own the land that is leased to CBS.

What we have here are:

• a legally binding contract.

• land that is owned by the people of Manteca and not CBS.

• a mega-corporation that will do anything to protect its revenue stream.

• a lease that pays Manteca only $2,070 a year for six billboards when home builders will pay property owners $1,200 a year to place directional signs to new subdivisions on their property that are just an eighth in size of just one of the billboards.

Obviously, CBS figures it must protect cash cows.

The City Council acting on advice of its staff believes it can do nothing or else they may incur the wrath of CBS’s legal team that probably has more lawyers than Manteca has municipal workers. Hogwash.

The plain truth is the city doesn’t want to do anything which suits the City Council just fine because they can talk the talk and then hide behind the threat of a lawsuit and do nothing.

Here’s what the council can do:

•Serve notice again and go ahead and tear the signs down. If CBS threatens to get a court injunction, great. Call up the Sierra Club, TV stations, and anyone else to give them a chance to get in on Goliath vs. David.

•Contract Congressman Jerry McNerney and outright challenge him to show he is of a different stripe than his predecessors. Get him to put a bill in place that overturns the federal law or at least give local agencies control over their own park land.

•Stir up a hornet’s nest. Post the city’s dilemma on its website with photos that update the advertisement on them and make it clear that the city’s position is that they are being forced to allow advertising on public lands under protest. Better yet, the city staff and council come up with a form letter and send it to each advertiser that appears on the billboards and make it clear that the city doesn’t appreciate advertising in what is a city park especially when it promotes alcohol and other things.

The city is sending the wrong message by doing nothing. Basically if you’re big enough, if you’re powerful enough, and if you’ve got enough money you can have your way with Manteca and its 65,000 residents.

CBS has taken a morally bankrupt position that may cross the line into an ethic breach. This isn’t the case of a city forcing a private landowner to get rid of pre-existing billboards as what the original federal law they secured intended to do. These billboards are on public land and owned by the public. It is not the same thing.

For CBS to argue otherwise just shows that they are a ruthless, insensitive, money hungry corporation that  believes it is OK to intimidate local government.
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