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The county moves toward a settlement with Clear Channel that would remove billboards--but allow many illegal ones to remain

As the government boast goes, Pima County passed strict billboard regulations nearly 20 years ago that were the toughest of any Arizona county.

And for most of the life of those regulations, Pima County did exactly what the billboard industry wanted--the county ignored its own supposed tough regulations.

The county's billboard laws came about the same time as tougher (on paper) regulations were adopted by the city via the electorate's preference and City Council action.

When city rules got too tough, billboard magnate Karl Eller and the industry relied on their friends in the Legislature to quickly emasculate local laws.

But with split votes of the City Council, the city pressed on with citations against outlaw billboard companies--since swallowed by media colossus Clear Channel--and litigation. None of that bothered Clear Channel, whose record in Superior Court here and in courts across the country reveals a sue-first, talk-later mode of operation.

Activists like Mark Mayer, who has served as a billboard consultant for the city for about $93,000, say the city's hard line worked: Some 260 billboards have been removed. But Clear Channel has battered the city in court and in the Legislature, and the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of losing. One recent court loss that shifts Clear Channel's legal bills to the city could cost taxpayers $800,000.

It is against that backdrop that County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is telling the Board of Supervisors to agree to a settlement that would mean the vanishing of at least 38 of Clear Channel's 118 billboards in unincorporated Pima County.

It is a move, delayed twice since March, that would make moot the county-Clear Channel battle in Superior Court. Settlement offers are due Nov. 1, and complaints against specific Clear Channel billboards for zoning, size, setbacks, lighting and other issues will be accepted by the county for Nov. 23 consideration by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Billboard Advisory Committee.

All of this has surprised anti-billboard activists and others who believed the county would adopt its usual course of waiting out Clear Channel and pursuing victory--with the nearly limitless taxpayer-supported legal budget--through attrition. The county, in the last 15 years, has shown no reluctance to wear down legal foes by dragging out litigation, particularly in land-use and land-acquisition cases.

"We could, but why?" Huckelberry said. "There comes a point when you say, 'What is the point?' We're looking for what is reasonable."

Huckelberry said the city's path has proved costly and--according to research by deputy county attorneys--nearly fruitless, with just 19-22 billboards removed through enforcement action by the city since 1985.

"If we continue to litigate, the Legislature may be tempted to intervene to make new law," Huckelberry told the Board of Supervisors. "Historically, when the Legislature has intervened, it has done so on behalf of the billboard industry to relax regulations and impede local enforcement."

Clear Channel's cushy treatment by the Legislature and its fights in court here come with an added slap. John Munger, whose law firm has been paid to lobby the Legislature for Pima County for a dozen years, also represents Clear Channel. Munger's state lobbying contract is capped at $125,000 a year. The county has paid the firm $98,000 to date. Munger also is the chairman of the Pima County Republican Party and has retained his county contract despite the Board of Supervisors' Democratic majority and his history of representing those, like private landfill firms, in opposition to Pima County.

Martin Willett, the deputy county administrator who is charge of county lobbying, said written notice from Munger detailing who his firm is representing in court is all that is required to gain a waiver from the county on possible conflicts of interest. That provision is included, he said, because the Board of Supervisors can terminate the contract without cause.

Huckelberry said much county time and money have already been devoted to the Clear Channel negotiation, including his own participation, that of Public Works Director John Bernal, Development Services Director Carmine DeBonis, building and code enforcement and members of the county attorney's civil division.

Huckelberry has described the county's litigation as "aggressive" and its negotiations with Clear Channel as "hard-fought." And he told supervisors that the non-court goal is to achieve a "global settlement."

At one point, that included a 14-point proposal that would have removed or modified 51 billboards and eliminated 38. Bottom-up lighting, under the settlement, would be converted to top-down and subject to an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. The county would subtract its code enforcement costs from the amount taxpayers would pay to buy up any condemned Clear Channel billboards. The agreement would be contained in a consent decree subject to oversight by a Superior Court judge.

"Settlement," Huckelberry said, "will eliminate the high cost to the county of litigation and will allow staff and attorney resources to be directed elsewhere."

All was on track for approval last month when the Board of Supervisors, skittish over just 20 e-mail protests, voted for the latest delay.

Only Richard Elias, a Democrat, is pushing for tougher action against Clear Channel. Elias inherited the District 5 seat from Raul Grijalva, who is completing his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elias also inherited Grijalva's commitment to uphold the district's hatred of billboards.

His colleagues are far less passionate, though board Chairman Sharon Bronson is more likely to back Elias on billboards. Democrat Ramon Valadez, who inherited his southside District 2 seat from Dan Eckstrom last year, has reflected the tolerance--even support--that District 2 leaders have had for the billboard industry. Republican Ann Day, a former state senator who represents the billboard-free foothills in District 1, is inclined to support Huckelberry's recommendation. That leaves Ray Carroll, a Republican from eastside and Green Valley District 4, as the swing vote.

For Mayer, a crusader against billboards, the "delay has never been warranted. Negotiations should never be used to delay enforcement."

Mayer also said the proposal for removal of 38 billboards is weak and short by 30 billboards that the Billboard Review Committee recommends for removal. Removal of 38, Mayer said, is only "clearing out Clear Channel's junk, including legal (yet) nonconforming billboards that were of little or no commercial value."

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