LOS ANGELES — A federal judge tentatively found the city of Los Angeles in contempt of court yesterday for violating an injunction by issuing citations against a company that erects enormous outdoor-advertising signs.
U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins, in a written tentative decision, said the city would have to rescind citations it issued against World Wide Rush LLC for its massive signs draped across two buildings within 10 days and pay the company's legal fees, which are expected to be around $100,000.
Collins noted that World Wide Rush was cited for hanging signs without permits, although the city had refused to issue permits, citing a ban on so-called supergraphics.
She ruled city officials had no right to withhold permits or issue citations because of the August injunction, which was enacted after World Wide Rush argued that exceptions to the supergraphics ban made it unconstitutional.
Collins did not dismiss fire-code violations issued against World Wide Rush, but ordered fire officials to instruct the company how to comply with safety regulations.
City officials have been trying to halt the proliferation of giant advertising signage that critics say distracts drivers and creates ugly streetscapes.
A temporary ban on new signs was passed by the City Council in December to give city planners time to devise new regulations after World Wide Rush successfully challenged a previous, more selective ban on supergraphics.
The company argued that exceptions to the ban gave city officials too much discretion in deciding whether to allow signage, raising free-speech concerns. That argument led to the injunction.
Despite that decision, World Wide Rush was cited for a series of billboards that were hung on two buildings on prominent thoroughfares. The signs included a massive graphic advertising the "Dr. Phil" TV program that was removed prematurely at the show's request following a wave of publicity.
World Wide Rush attorney Paul E. Fisher said the contempt decision cleared the way for signs to remain on 19 locations mentioned in the original injunction and that the company would likely sue the city over 48 additional sites for which permits were declined.
"Essentially, the city engaged in a subterfuge," Fisher said. "They created a fair amount of public concern and outrage that there was someone who for the sake of money was endangering public safety and these things are not true."
City attorney spokesman Nick Velasquez declined comment yesterday, citing the ongoing litigation.
Fisher also ruled on claims filed by other billboard companies against the city, including a request by billboard entrepreneur Mike McNeilly, whose Statue of Liberty murals hang over dozens of buildings across the city.
McNeilly asked that the city be prohibited from interfering with signs on 118 buildings he claimed had signs before the temporary moratorium on all new billboards and supergraphics went into effect in December.
Presented with photos showing no supergraphics on most of the buildings, Fisher declined McNeilley's request, limiting his claim to 33 signs. She asked his company, Sky Tag Inc., to file a new brief within seven days focusing on just those signs.
McNeilly's lawyer, Gary Mobley, said he was disappointed that the bulk of his client's sign claims were denied, but he was encouraged by the overall tenor of Fisher's ruling toward the city's enforcement policy.
"My client still has somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 signs," he said. "It would seem from the rest of her ruling that she will look favorably on keeping the city from using its current enforcement tactics against those signs."
The temporary ban on new signs is scheduled to last until mid-May.