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    King County may be hearing footsteps on billboard decision

    The County Council seemed all set to approve digital billboards, but then the idea suddenly got pulled from an agenda. Are local residents picking up some of Tacomans' anger about billboards?

    This image subject to change, in about eight seconds.

    This image subject to change, in about eight seconds. Clear Channel Outdoor

    The big news about Monday afternoon's King County Council meeting is what isn't on the agenda. As Crosscut reported last Friday morning (Sept. 23), the council parks and environment committee voted two weeks ago in favor of allowing billboard companies (i.e., Clear Channel Northwest) to convert their traditional flat boards to image-shuffling, TV-like digital billboards. The bill then moved to the agenda for the Monday (Sept. 26) full council meeting, where final passage seemed assured; the measure, similar to others Clear Channel has promoted in jurisdictions around the country, needed only the support of the five councilmembers who voted for it in committee.

    But then, at 4:52 Friday afternoon, councilmembers sent out word that the ordinance had been "taken off the agenda awaiting an environmental review." What happened? Councilmembers got hit by a flash flood of public ire at the measure, which till then had passed largely under the radar. Last week Seattle designer Paula Rees, who'd been a lonely voice testifying against it, got up a "Keep King County Beautiful" website that included an auto-vote button; she says 400 "nay" messages landed in each councilmember's inbox.

    This past summer a groundswell of anti-billboard sentiment prompted Tacoma's mayor and city council to back off an earlier deal allowing Clear Channel to convert some of its old billboards there to digital, and to order the company to remove scores of out-of-compliance signs it had earlier sued to defend. Next stop, court; Clear Channel wants the dispute moved to federal court.

    There's no indication King County will likewise hold out. Councilmember Joe McDermott still sang the measure's praises in a Friday email announcing the postponement: "My colleagues and I worked closely with the various affected communities to craft a solution that works for the region. The billboards allowed by this ordinance are strictly limited in scope and very different from those you might have seen in Fife and other places... . Digital billboards not only create a more efficient use of advertising space for our local businesses, they are also a powerful tool for public safety. They allow EMS and law enforcement officers to distribute alerts quickly to our communities — particularly Amber Alerts where time is a critical factor." Opponents dispute both the need for these billboard alerts and their usefulness.

    Given widespread dislike of billboards and distrust of Clear Channel, the council will likely only hear more, not less from citizens when they revisit the issue.

    Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.

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