Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Billboards in Reno, My Letter.

The city council has reviewed the digital billboards for some time now.  In that time there has been a considerable amount of controversy.  It is difficult to imagine the passage of this proposal in its current state without leaving a bad taste in almost everyone's mouths.  The billboard companies have animosity toward many citizens and businesses in the city, council members perceive their constituency as undermining potential progress, and citizen groups feel trampled on and ignored.

Obviously the intent is to actually reduce the amount of visual clutter in Reno's skyline.  Yet the exemptions and process built into the document provide for a troubling process.  I am concerned that there are sufficient loopholes that it would be possible to actually add to the number of billboards in Reno.  Briefly, it is the job of city employees, council members, and billboard representatives to attend meetings related to billboards.  It is extra-curricular and even a loss of personal income to attend a meeting as a concerned citizen.  By putting the burden on citizens to find and attend every meeting that may have an impact on them related to billboards is effectively limiting the democratic process to those who can afford it.

And that is another area of concern.  Are the people who would be most impacted by these developments adequately represented in the public process?

A cursory analysis of the people who live nearby the densest concentrations of billboards--therefore the most impacted--indicates that they are low wage hourly workers with schedules not conducive to appearing at these meetings.  These are people who tend to make significantly less than the median household income and have insufficient assets to participate in these public processes.

These people would be the most affected by changes in billboard policy yet their representation in this matter is zero.

Given how billboards have been shown implicitly and explicitly to correlate with depressions in property value this policy change could have enormous and disproportionate impacts on the city's poorest citizens.  Basically, the addition of digital billboards near (within several blocks of) properties decreases property value.  This equals a loss of tax revenue for the city and a loss of value for the property owner.

In a city reeling from foreclosures and the economic downturn, neither the city nor its citizens can afford to lose even more money--especially in the neighborhoods where this ordinance has the most impact.

That's not to say that the entire ordinance needs to be scrapped.  Rather, it is to say that perhaps a revised public process where all stakeholders are present would allow the concerned parties to craft an ordinance that has greater consideration toward the needs of all parties.

It would be a severe embarrassment to the city council if this were to go to court and the result mirrored the recent decision in Arizona which overturned a similar ordinance.  It would also be costly and unproductive.  As is, several groups are ready to take court action.  For the sake of saving on costs for the city as well as showing a good faith effort to represent the entire voting constituency which you were elected, I urge you to postpone decision further and look to crafting these policy changes with a neutral third party facilitator.

Their goal is to change the atmosphere of distrust into one of collaboration.  It has also been shown that Alternative Dispute Resolution can significantly improve the chances of lasting outcomes while reducing costs by 90% or more.  Importantly, having a facilitator that is trusted by all parties lends legitimacy and productive input to a process traditionally muddled by demonizing the "opposition".
If the city council truly wants to stop reviewing this ordinance and craft a policy that satisfies all parties then it is imperative that a legitimate process be found.

It's never too late to stop a negative process and shift to something positive.  I believe strongly that it is in the best interests of the council to consider the merits of a process where all parties are allowed input into an ordinance that would affect them.

Please reconsider the ordinance and hire a third party neutral to facilitate the process.