The Man in the Middle of the Billboard Battle

Mark Mayer leads the good fight against Tucson's questionably illegal billboards. Too bad his financial ties with the city have hurt his credibility.

Mark Mayer will tell you--with the obsessive passion of a researcher seeking a cure--how many billboards are in Tucson, how many are just outside the city limits, how many are out of compliance with zoning and building codes and why. He will tell you if one is 20 feet or 50 feet beyond a setback, which ones are too tall or too big, which are illegally lit and which are out of place in historic zones.

Mayer will tell you the taxable value of the 410 or so billboards in Tucson, and why he thinks media conglomerate Clear Channel, which has a virtual monopoly on Tucson billboards, is evading 97 percent of its tax bill.

Put Mayer in the middle of the audience at a political forum in which participants are deep into proposals on health care for the poor, and he'll change the tone with a question to test the candidates' resolve to remove big and ugly billboards.

But don't call Mayer passionate. Don't call him obsessive. And be damn sure to not call him an anti-billboard activist.

He's heard that before and considers it "a diss. It is an attempt to discredit what I do." If he is an anti-billboard activist, he reasons, then Clear Channel and its hired guns are "anti-regulation activists."

"It's not so much a passion for an issue, but rather being a junkyard dog against the atrocious things the industry can do," Mayer says.

Besides, Mayer is a professional.

From 1995 through 2001, Mayer was a hired gun for the city, which has fought an intense and costly battle against outlaw billboards since 1985.

Mayer was paid nearly $93,000, according to his and city records, to construct a catalog of billboards in Tucson and then to document those that were out of compliance. He then worked for the city attorney and city manager by providing technical support during multiple rounds of litigation.

Though clearly biased, Mayer was valuable in and out of court, says Tom Berning, the former city attorney who was in office during most of Mayer's work.

"Mark Mayer is the most opinionated man in the world. He wants each and every one of the billboards taken down," Berning says. "But he was not in court to give opinions, and his testimony was uniformly accepted by the judges."

Mayer's multiple contracts with the city, though not secret, have been a sideshow dispute within the greater fight over billboards. His critics--Republican Vice Mayor Fred Ronstadt and Republican Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar included--have attempted to use them to discredit his effort to dismantle Tucson's billboard business, be it his testimony or his lobbying. The dispute has been perpetuated at times by Mayer and his supporters, who have downplayed the city work and contract amounts. This dispute recently re-erupted in The Weekly's Mailbag section.

Mayer says his critics confuse his presence at the state Legislature, lobbying against relaxed laws sought by the billboard industry, as work for the city. It is as a neighborhood activist, he says, though the lobbying certainly has been while he has been on contract to provide litigation support for the city.

Whatever, Mayer in the last 10 years has emerged as Tucson's leading arbiter of aesthetics.

MAYER, 55, IS UBIQUITOUS IN HIS quest to change the city's streetscapes. He is at the libraries. He is at City Hall. He is researching city development records. He is on the lots that sprout the surprisingly thick, big poles that support billboards. He is measuring distances and dimensions, and then checking them with what has been filed with the development plats at the city and county.

"Most are like they did a development plan on a bar napkin," Mayer says of the frequent, and perhaps deliberately, shoddy planning preparation on billboard properties.

Mayer says he grew up in a typical Detroit home as one of three children whose father was an auto company engineer. Mayer studied for a mathematics degree at the University of Michigan. After some starting and stopping, he got the degree by completing courses at Wayne State University while working a Dodge truck plant.

Part of the anti-Vietnam War movement, he ventured to Tucson in the 1970s to visit friends, and spent time here off and on until moving permanently in 1984.

He gravitated to the left-leaning protests and organizations. The Tucson Ecumenical Council for Latin America was de rigueur in those days for Tucsonans concerned about Nicaragua and El Salvador. To some, Mayer seemed a little odd. He would mill about with pen and paper, and some were suspicious that he was building files on activists.

Others have criticized him for what they call his hijacking of the once-influential Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson for his narrow battle with billboards.

He dismisses both observations as hogwash.

Mayer is neither imposing nor invisible. His plain pants and shirts never attract attention. His thinning hair is generally covered by a flat driving cap and his eyes by tinted glasses. He is not particularly loud, but he is persistent. He is a Democrat and he doesn't miss a vote.

He can share a joke or laugh, but he mostly stays serious. He has trouble identifying the hobbies and interests he has to blow off steam.

For Mayer, the billboard battle in Tucson was akin to the "person driving down a lonely road and coming upon an accident with the person half dead, and doing what I could do."

The accident in Tucson was years in the making. Life magazine famously dubbed East Speedway Boulevard the "ugliest street in America," more than a dozen years before the City Council in 1985 followed other cities by cracking down on billboards. It was an intramural fight of sorts, because Karl Eller, a Tucson High School and University of Arizona grad, is a one of the nation's billboard barons, having twice built huge sign companies based in Phoenix. He sold Eller Media to Clear Channel in 1997 for $1.5 billion, although he remained on board as the CEO of the Clear Channel subsidiary. He has aggressively and abrasively fought all attempts to restrict the number, size, placement and lighting of billboards.

Another industry titan has Tucson roots; Arte Moreno, a Tucson native, split from Eller and pioneered various multinational sign operations that helped him amass nearly $1 billion. He recently used some of that cash to purchase baseball's Anaheim Angels.

Attempting to cut existing signs, around 670 in 1985, the city enacted the so-called vacant lot provision that required removal of billboards on lots undergoing development.

For fortification, the council sent the matter to voters in the general election that year, and the referendum passed 2-1, despite the billboard lobby outspending proponents by 20-1. Voters did reject a measure to buy up billboards, however.

Billboard executives were not about to take it lying down. They quickly went to court to defeat or retard the city plans to eliminate the signs.

Despite the city's aggressive stance, it was hamstrung by huge gaps in city records. Billboards that were, according to drawings in one file, to be on the south side of a lot, were actually on the north side. Details were often blurred about setbacks from streets and sidewalks, and, as a result with some on Speedway, they hang too far into the right of way. Many were erected without proper zoning--check the billboard sign at the Quick Mart on Mission and Silverlake roads. Years of other priorities, including commercial and residential construction booms, forced bureaucrats to focus on matters other than billboard plans.

At the same time, the number of companies controlling the billboards was shrinking. Companies swallowed others, and they were incredibly vigilant in keeping their numbers of signs in the face of a developing city were new buildings meant no billboards.

Mayer says the seminal incident during the fight came during a subcommittee meeting of the city sign code committee, where billboard reps said only a few billboards were out of compliance, for instance, with bottom-mounted lighting that ruins Arizona's dark skies treasured for astronomy.

"In June 1994, I went looking at every billboard in Tucson," Mayer says. "There were 50 with bottom-mounted lights. They might not have known or they might not have cared."

Mayer dived back into the city records.

"You look at it until your eyeballs fall out of their sockets," he says.

Berning says Mayer was uniquely qualified to work for the city, first for Paul Swift, then director of Development Services, and then to aid attorneys, who brought actions against billboard companies for a variety of compliance matters. City departments lacked personnel and expertise for the "extremely time consuming and tedious work that was needed," Berning says.

Mayer became a contractor, earning between $24 and $35 an hour for his site inspections, records checks and inventory list, according to city contracts and invoices.

City action was hardly revolutionary, Mayer says. Mesa and Tempe had started restricting billboards. Nogales and Santa Cruz County banned them. Each, as Mayer notes, is scarcely a "hotbed of radical environmentalism."

Eller, the billboard baron, moved in and out of the business. He sold his Combined Communications, including billboards, television and radio stations and newspapers, to Gannett in 1978 for $373 million. His quest to put a Circle K convenience market on every block helped lead to the company's bankruptcy, and Eller got back into billboards by buying some of Gannett's billboard stock in 1992.

That alone tilted the balance at the Legislature, which after intense and prolonged pressure, gave Eller the end run around the courts he wanted in 1994. It negated the city's Vacant Lot Ordinance, the provision requiring billboard removal when the parcel is developed. At stake were some 100 billboards. Eller then sold his company to Clear Channel, the media conglomerate based in San Antonio, seven years ago.

MEYER IS UP AGAINST A monster. Billboards may seem to be a throwback, but they have evolved into high-tech, expensive displays chosen by high-powered advertisers from coast to coast. As noted in Fortune magazine, Clear Channel posted $865 million in revenue from the billboard business in the first year with what were Eller's boards.

And, as Fortune also noted, Moreno took his Outdoor Systems public in 1996--and the stock price has soared by a staggering 1,460 percent.

Mayer's star witness status earned him special recognition. Eller Media, then a subsidiary of Clear Channel, named him as a personal defendant in a 1999 lawsuit. Mayer viewed the legal attack as a scare tactic, a way to get him to shut up or, if he wouldn't, a way to discredit him at the Legislature. Eller's lawyers justified the move against whom they called the city's "outside operative." They contended that Mayer violated Eller Media's rights. While the motion caused commotion and distress, they were all dismissed. Because he was under the cloak of the city, doing its research and tabulation, the city picked up the cost of his defense that was provided by the costly firm of Gabroy Rollman and Bosse.

The ongoing fight has featured preposterous hyperbole from both sides.

Don Dybus, an Eller vice president and lawyer who moved over with Clear Channel, equated the company's stand to a grand free speech issue. Further, because billboard regulation hinged on local control--the city's right to impose a range of standards without interference from the state--Dybus suggested Eller Media was not unlike those who did not allow the states' rights proponents in the South to perpetuate Jim Crow and lynchings.

Mayer countered that he was a victim no less in stature than those swept up by anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.

Mayer doesn't mind attention. Appointed by Democratic Councilman Steve Leal, he was an eight-year member of the city Planning Commission. Despite the commission's high-profile work on big-box stores five years ago, Mayer expresses some disappointment that throughout his tenure, no reporters contacted him for his opinion any item on any Planning Commission agenda.

Back at the Legislature four years ago, Eller and his lobbyists were pushing for more. They wanted a law that limited put a two-year time limit on city action against offending billboards. That gave the city two years from the time it discovered a billboard violation to bring enforcement action. Billboard lobbyists swore that it would be in place only in new cases of infractions, but the law was massaged to include pending and old violations as well. Mayer and the city got outfoxed and out-muscled.

The billboard bar used the new law to block the city's action on 89 illegal billboards. The city lost in Superior Court. And on Oct. 31, the state Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, saying the city's zoning powers are derived specifically from the state. The Court of Appeals also said the city was wrong to believe that the 2000 state law set a two-year time limit on enforcement for only newly discovered billboard infractions.

The tally of how many boards existed in 1985 and how many were proper, along with how many remain and how many of them are proper, can be maddeningly elusive. From the city's and Mayer's count, 260 of the 670 billboards prior to the 1985 vote have come down--a 39 percent reduction. Mayer insists 215 of the 410 up today are illegal for various reasons. Not surprisingly, the billboard companies disagree.

At issue in the case the Court of Appeals decided in October was the city's complaint in Superior Court that 122 Eller billboards violated city sign and zoning codes. The number was chopped to 51 after the city amended its complaint.

Dunbar, in her first term on the City Council in northside Ward 3, was in the state House of Representatives in 2000 and voted with that slimmest of margins--one--to approve the bill that put a two-year cap on city billboard enforcement. Dunbar insists any one of her majority colleagues could have been the swing vote.

Her stance on billboards is made clearer by her recent City Council vote to not appeal the Oct. 31 Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the two-year limit on enforcement of all wayward billboards--new and old. This time, she, Ronstadt and Republican Mayor Bob Walkup were short one vote, and the city has taken the matter up with the Arizona Supreme Court.

MAYER RUBS SOME FOLKS, like Dunbar, the wrong way. He considers this a badge of honor; he says the billboard industry "has no ethics whatsoever."

Marvin Kirchler, another person who was rubbed the wrong way by Mayer, is a former billboard executive who has carved a niche in Tucson for bus shelter advertising. A Chicago native and former union worker, Kirchler has been through many billboard and political battles. None of his adversaries left a poorer impression on him than Mayer.

"Part of being able to move on is to get to the middle, to find compromise," Kirchler says. "I never found that opportunity with him. There are a lot of people I've been on opposite sides for whom I have respect. Not him."

That feeling was caused in no small part by Mayer's opposition in 2001 to the bus shelter ads. Mayer tapped his allies in the neighborhood movement to attempt to get the council to kill the ads. He portrayed Kirchler as an "Eller front," and said that the proposal would allow Eller to lowball a bid to get another foothold in the city while it "refused to abate even the most flagrant of its code violations on 171 billboards."

Mayer's move failed. Bus shelter ads are growing in number.

Mayer also has his sights on billboards outside the city, along Interstate 10, where he complains that Clear Channel has flouted state and county law to replace billboards with new, two-sided giants. He is a solid ally to astronomers for his work to force billboard owners to light their messages with downward-facing lamps.

He has pressed for the county to tear down two billboards on the Veterans Memorial Overpass. That is leading to work with Luz Social Services--the 32-year-old nonprofit community organization that provides a range of health, social and education services--to put the clamp on the billboards for alcohol, gambling and cigarettes, that he and Luz officials believe disproportionately target the southside. Mayer notes that upper-income and white neighborhoods in the expanse of the foothills are free from billboards.

Mayer gets by, he says, by living simply. His home, a block south of Reid Park, is valued under $60,000. He has never owned a new car. He doesn't eat or go out much. And he conserves what he says is his investment nest egg.

His life isn't all about billboards. He has other causes that also may be uphill or even less popular.

While community leaders fret to make the Air Force comfortable at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and to chase away any threat of closure, Mayer is comfortable trying to tell the Air Force what it can do and what it can fly. Mayer is unabashed in saying D-M should no longer be a flight-training base. The noise from the jets that will eventually replace the A-10s will be too disruptive to his and other neighborhoods in central Tucson, he contends.

Mayer has presided over opposition that has helped drive Tucson's billboards to be cut by 38 percent since voters said no to new ones 19 years ago, and no to replacement during development of vacant lots.

"In another life, I'll be a lawyer," he says. "I'm a virtual paralegal now."

Mayer is enough of a pain in the ass that it would be logical to think that the billboard boys would offer him a job--just to get rid of him.

"I've never been approached. I want to be remembered for the accomplishments of my government work and advocacy and taking it to a new level."

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