Billboards in Florida
The vaunted freedom of the American Press is not always overwhelming, especially when foreign political events, highly placed officials and national interests are at stake.
Nevertheless, for a foreigner it is somewhat amazing to more or less regularly read articles in the local newspapers, whereby the journalist pronounces outspoken opinions, and those involved are fully named and shamed.
Thus, in the Orlando Sentinel of March 14, 2005 there was a candid editorial article about the uses and abuses of the Florida State administration. In so many words it was stated that Jose Abreu, the then Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, was in cahoots with major companies, that exploit practically every Florida billboard.
Billboards are huge publicity panels, standing along almost every major road and shouting out loud whatever needs to catch the motorist's attention.
Advertising on billboards may cost a small fortune, but if it isn't done, the competitors might walk away with the customer... Also remember that multi-billionaire Ted Turner started his incredible career as an operator of billboards !
The Proliferation of Florida Billboards
But let's get back to Florida.
In this state there are no less than 14,200 billboards !
Besides being an attractive commercial investment, billboards can also be "deployed" for "friendly" politicians at election time, so that the influence of the larger billboard groups rises beyond the financial aspect, and the political is combined with the practical...
This created a real proliferation of billboards, and for many years billboards were planted everywhere, without any restraint. Eventually the situation became so bad that John Public finally responded with a request for regulations concerning their construction.
An Act of God
If illegal billboards were destroyed for more than 50% by an "Act of God", they would not be allowed to be rebuilt, but instead they would have to be completely torn down !
Instantly, everyone was happy, the politicians, the billboard companies, the voters, the media and especially John Smith, because how else but to put your trust in God ?
And all the illegal billboards simply remained standing... Pure genius !...
But, but, but...
In 2004, four consecutive hurricanes destroyed many of the billboards, both legitimate and "somewhat less" legitimate. Now, wasn't this an "Act of God" ?
But even though He drove a spoke through the (financial) wheels of the mighty billboard industry, in no time ALL of the billboards were rebuilt, of course including the illegal ones...
Restriction of Billboards
After years of discussions, this led to federal and national laws and restrictions, which the big companies totally ignored, therein nicely assisted by the same "friendly" politicians, who thoroughly obstructed any possible sanctions...
As it happens, in Florida there are 262 completely illegal billboards. Normally these would have to be taken down, but nobody in the administration wanted to walk on this dangerous road - that is, dangerous to their own political career...
Since over the years the situation did not change at all, and John Smith started to get impatient, the legislative politicians came up with a bright idea to save both the cabbage and the goat, and at the same time stun the public with a nice, if empty, wrapping.
So they hatched the following witty legal egg...
An Act of Secretary Abreu
Secretary Abreu negotiated agreements with the three largest billboard companies (not the small ones...), to rebuild their billboards. The final agreement was completely overtaken by reality, since the same, apparently well-informed, companies had long since taken steps to rebuild everything...
This little detail didn't bother the Secretary overmuch, and besides, a nice "regularization" always looks good in the press. To save appearances, 86 of the 262 illegal panels were dropped, but the others remained where they were or were renewed, and received an official approval to boot !
To Sue or not to Sue, that's the Question...
The smaller billboard companies were completely ignored during the "negotiations". They protested against the Secretary's arbitrary decisions, but when this didn't work, the incident was "accidentally" leaked to the press.
The media interest proved to be somewhat embarrassing for Governor Jeb Bush's government, that in recent years had received quite a lot of campaign contributions from these same billboard kings... A ministry spokesman came up with the lame excuse that the administration didn't want to spend taxpayers' money on lawsuits, if their billboard-friends sued them !
Some time ago, a few dozen illegally placed billboards from smaller billboard companies were destroyed by fire. On that occasion the law was applied in full rigor, and the state of Florida sued the owners without hesitation. And won easily...
On Federal Level
Even better, once the hurricanes had passed, members of the Florida Department of Transport went to Washington, to ask an exception to federal law for their billboard-friends.
Unfortunately, they were turned down, and so they had to resolve the problem at state level.
One vivid message in the press, no response whatsoever from the power group, and finally the status quo of an unhealthy situation.
We've seen that before...