Aided by Landrieu administration officials, a politically connected advertising firm is on the cusp of winning the right to erect a billboard at the city’s 911 call center at Interstate 10 and City Park Avenue — without having to bid against competitors, which other public officials have said could violate state law.
Marco Outdoor Advertising has tried for three years to advertise there, claiming that a 31-year-old agreement gives it the right to build along tracks and facilities once controlled by the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.
A lot has changed since the original agreement was signed in 1982: The original signatories are defunct. Mayors have come and gone. But this company has held onto its billboard contracts.
Now the Landrieu administration has signed off on a contract stating that it’s “obligated” to allow Marco to build next to the city’s 911 call center. Some members of the board of commissioners for the Orleans Parish Communication District, however, believe awarding the contract to Marco would violate state law.
But a late deal may be in the works. The city and the communication district are working on an agreement that would remove the 911 board from any negotiations and drop the legal issues in the lap of the city alone.
The communication district, which oversees the 911 call center, is an independent public body. Its board members include various city and state officials and a couple appointees by the mayor.
The communication district’s 911 call center is located at I-10 and City Park Avenue, on land leased from the Firemen’s Charitable and Benevolent Association. Between the call center and the interstate is a publicly-owned railroad.
The land in question — where the billboard is likely to go — is a long, narrow strip that was once Julia Street, between the call center’s parking lot and the tracks. The city has leased it to the communication district since 2005.
The district has received offers from other advertisers for a billboard lease, according to an internal memo. At a 2010 board meeting, “Marco was opposed to the OPCD [Orleans Parish Communication District] using an open competitive bid process with other companies,” wrote Communication District Executive Director Stephen Gordon in a September memo.
“It’s as prime a space as you can get for a billboard sign,” board member Brobson Lutz said. “It certainly makes sense to put it out to bid.”
Reached at home Monday night, Marco’s attorney, Henry Kinney, declined to discuss the billboard lease. “I don’t generally discuss clients’ business,” Kinney said.
Marco has been pushing for the billboard for three years, according to Gordon’s memo.
In 2010, Marco approached the board, arguing that it should be allowed to build a billboard without having to bid for it. The board rejected the idea in part because of concerns over ethics violations.
In 2011, board member and Deputy Mayor of Safety and Homeland Security Col. Jerry Sneed again broached the idea. But the board did not take action on it.
Marco’s president, Marc Winston, has given $26,000 to Mayor Mitch Landrieu since 2006, according to state records.
“In general, when the city enters into a sweetheart deal, it’s for political consideration,” Lutz said.
Asked if he meant Winston’s campaign contributions to Landrieu, including $5,000 in October, he said, “I know that campaign contributors in general have a lot better access to politicians.”
Even if an agreement is reached regarding the site, the city’s Safety and Permits department has to approve any billboard in the city.
Board to take up issue Tuesday
The communication district’s board of commissioners is scheduled to take the issue up again during a meeting Tuesday morning, though it is unclear exactly what the board will vote on.
Its agenda mentions a draft cooperative endeavor agreement but gives no further details. Executive Director Stephen Gordon said that he didn’t think the board would vote on any deal during the meeting because details were still being worked out with the city attorney’s office.
The agreement “is still a working document,” Gordon said at 5 p.m. Monday. “Ten minutes ago, we sent it to the city’s attorney with all our amendments and changes to it.”
In addition, the communication district did not release the agenda for Tuesday morning’s meeting until late Monday afternoon; state law requires a full agenda to be available to the public 24 hours in advance.
The Landrieu administration likely has the votes on the board to pass an agreement. Six of its 11 members are high-ranking Landrieu administration officials, including Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who replaced Julius Levy on the board this fall. Levy was skeptical about the lease deal, according to minutes from its September meeting.
Reagan-era deal for billboards
Marco’s argument hinges on a 31-year-old agreement between two defunct entities, its predecessor Winston Network and the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. The contract granted Winston “the exclusive right” to build outdoor advertising along the passenger terminal’s tracks and train station. The passenger terminal was acquired by the New Orleans Building Corporation in 2002.
That 1982 agreement has been amended and supplanted a number of times. Later agreements have transferred the deal to new entities, authorized additional billboards and amended the payment terms.
The latest agreement, reached in August, authorizes the digital billboard at the 911 call center. It’s signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and representatives of the New Orleans Building Corporation and Marco — but not the Orleans Parish Communication District.
Though the communication district is listed on the agreement, it didn’t participate in negotiations. And the board had questions as to whether the original 1982 contract that it relies on was properly recorded in the public record.
At the 911 board’s September meeting, its attorney Juan Lizarraga counseled against agreeing to the contract, according to meeting minutes. He said that board members have a “fiduciary obligation to use the land as it sees fit, notwithstanding any agreement the city made with another entity decades ago.”
He went on to say that it is “not a question of being team players, but is a question of how the board conducts business.”
The city’s August agreement states that the New Orleans Building Corporation is obligated to allow Marco to build the billboard, citing a December 2003 agreement. In a July memo, City Attorney Sharonda Williams wrote that “they have the right to install a third billboard on the UPT [Union Passenger Terminal] property.”
That December 2003 deal settled payment terms, required Marco to pay the building corporation $20,000 in legal costs, and authorized the company to build another billboard near the Carrollton Avenue overpass. It also deleted any reference to Marco having exclusive rights for billboards on Union Passenger Terminal property.
New agreement would shift responsibility to city
But the board may have found a way to avoid any legal problems.
“We’re going to allow the city to use a small piece of land, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our mission,” Gordon said.
The agreement up for review on Tuesday, he said, will likely give the city control of the piece of land Marco wants for the billboard, leaving any contract negotiations — and concerns about competitive bidding — up to the city.
Landrieu administration spokesman Tyler Gamble said the proposed agreement “will resolve outstanding issues related to a pre-existing agreement” between Marco and the building corporation.
The Orleans Parish Communication District “has been involved in on-going discussions with the City and NOBC [New Orleans Building Corporation] over the past several months to revise the document that is up for vote tomorrow,” he said via email.
Unlike the agreement drafted by the city, the draft reviewed by Gordon would not offer any money to the Orleans Parish Communication District. Instead, it would receive time on the digital billboard as an in-kind compensation.
“It sounds like now what they might be trying to do,” Lutz said, “is have us lease back a piece of that land so the city can do its own dirty work.”