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Going Through the Motions

We sit through City Council so you don't have to.

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An uneventful Pittsburgh City Council meeting turned ugly when a familiar subject -- Lamar Advertising's Grant Street billboard application -- came up at meeting's end.

On July 24, Lamar Outdoor Advertising will appear before the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment, asking for a permit to build a 1,200-square-foot electronic billboard, complete with scrolling ticker sign, on the Grant Street Transportation Center.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration gave Lamar an expedited permit for the sign earlier this year, only to have the permit appealed by councilors Patrick Dowd, Doug Shields, Bruce Kraus, Ricky Burgess and Bill Peduto. Dowd filed his appeal as a private citizen, paying his attorney from his own pocket; Shields and the rest filed in their capacity as elected officials, and have sought to be reimbursed for their legal fees.

Disagreement over who should pay those bills quickly drowned out the original debate. Lamar agreed to forfeit its permit, and go through a more public process; Dowd and the others began squabbling over invoices. Now councilors are disputing what process Lamar should follow this time around. Can Lamar merely seek its permit through the zoning board, the usual process for approval? Or should Lamar be denied a permit no matter what? Several councilors contend that the city code prohibits such a sign Downtown, so allowing it under any circumstances is against the law. Shields, meanwhile, tells City Paper that Lamar may be too late in any case: The billboard was never part of the center's original design plan, and drawings don't show a 1,200-foot sign.

It's unclear where the administration stands on the question. Shields sent a July 1 e-mail asking whether the administration would contest the permit. He never received a reply; inquiries by CP in the past week also received no answer from the mayor's office.

Kraus and Shields said they're taking the silence to mean the administration is not getting involved.

At the July 15 meeting Kraus proposed drafting a resolution expressing the "will of council" in opposition to the sign. However, Dowd said council should first get an opinion from the solicitor about whether Lamar is following proper procedure this time.

Dowd said he has sent several e-mails seeking such guidance, with no reply. In recent months, councilors have repeatedly accused city solicitor George Specter of delaying his opinions as a stall tactic. And when the opinions do arrive, Councilor Peduto said at the meeting, they are often tainted with politics. "We don't get legal opinions," Peduto said. "We get excuses -- something with just enough wiggle room to justify the decision that has already been made."

It's still unclear how council will proceed, or whether the issue will lead to more disharmony. If councilors don't find a way to resolve their differences soon, it could lead to nothing being done by the time Lamar appears before the zoning board.

Kraus said the situation feels similar to the last sign dispute, in which council's challenge came at the last minute: "It feels like we're running out of time again. This is surreal."

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