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Fresh off a legislative victory for the billboard industry at Nationals Park, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ attempt to preserve a loophole for digital sign companies doing business in the District seemed inevitable—especially given his close ties with the vendor that stands to benefit the most.
Evans recently introduced an emergency bill that would provide a permit exemption in certain cases—a boon for Digi Media Communications LLC, which already has installed numerous signs in violation of city rules and is looking to install dozens more throughout the District.
Loose Lips finds it telling that Evans and Digi Media CEO Don MacCord attended a Nantucket fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in August, and that both of their names, along with a number of other Digi Media executives and investors, appear on a list of contributions that Evans bundled so that he could attend the $50,000-a-head event. The list, dated Sept. 26 under Evans’ name and home address, shows 20 checks totaling $52,300—many of them also coming from developers with ties to Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Evans did not respond to requests for comment, but MacCord, who describes Evans to LL as “a fantastic person in many different ways,” says the contributions went directly to Clinton and have nothing to do with Evans. He acknowledges the benefit of attending an event that affords access to a political elite that could help promote the District, particularly with regard to the push for statehood, but says: “I see it as contributing to a candidate I was hopeful was going to win. I don’t see it any other way. And I don’t think Jack Evans needs help from Digi Media or Don MacCord to do a great job for his city.”
Stunningly, Evans’ emergency bill, which he withdrew on Dec. 6 for lack of votes but could re-introduce next week, would nullify a preliminary injunction that resulted from a lawsuit by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine against Digi Media.
All eyes are on Evans going into the final D.C. Council session on Dec. 20 to see if he tries again. But MacCord tells LL that Evans’ bill is not just about Digi Media; it’s about monetizing space inside buildings and “protecting signage rights for retailers, vendors, law firms, and businesses that have been in place for 60 years.”
Either way, if Evans goes forward, he’s in lockstep with Bowser. Until recently, she joined Racine in asking councilmembers to vote against Evans’ bill, which would exempt Digi Media’s network of digital signs from regulations enforced by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, according to Racine spokesmanRob Marus. But last week, Marus says, the mayor’s office informed the AG that she no longer opposes the bill. She indicated her support the next day.
Bowser is playing it coy. “The mayor’s position is that this is an issue where the councilmember should be allowed to advocate for their district,” says Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster. “She has not taken a position either against or in support, in order to give the councilmember an opportunity to make their case.”
The Bowser-Evans dance is intriguing. The checks Evans bundled for Clinton came from billboard execs and D.C. developers alike, including a familiar mix of Bowser-friendly developers, rainmakers, and campaign finance managers: Adrian Fenty’s former development director David Jannarone, who is now a real estate player; Bowser FreshPAC contributor and developer Buwa Binitie; Bowser campaign coordinator and fundraiser Phinis Jones; Jones’ sidekick and campaign finance managerMonica Ray, who managed Bowser ally LaRuby May’s campaign finances; and well-connected executives such as Lewis Shrensky, vice president of Fort Myer Construction Corporation, which is one of Bowser’s top donors.
Adams-Morgan resident Larry Hargrove, a member of citizen advocate group The Committee of 100, finds it “reprehensible” that Evans would save Digi Media’s bacon after Racine moved to shut it down. And he’s not alone in questioning Evans’ motives. “These are the last people D.C. should be doing favors for,” Hargrove says. “Rescuing these lawbreakers, it raises questions about what undisclosed inducements could be made for councilmembers or the mayor.”
D.C. has strong billboard laws, making its market size rank 114th out of 155 in the country, according to Financial Review. But in May, Australian firm Blue Sky Private Equity Ltd. announced a $19 million investment in Digi Media, which was building a network of 60 digital signs in prime commercial properties throughout D.C. The firm projected a valuation of $800 million over five to seven years, according to an executive summary prepared by an arm of Digi Media.
The signs would be scattered from Georgetown to Petworth, and L’Enfant Plaza to Mazza Gallery, with a heavy concentration downtown, near Foggy Bottom, and in the West End, the summary states. Work was already underway in July, when City Administrator Rashad Young prepared emergency regs that supported and strengthened stop-work orders at numerous unpermitted sites.
Digi continued to install its signs until Racine asked the D.C. Superior Court on Aug. 31 to force the company to halt work on existing signs and stop installing new ones. The court granted those motions on Nov. 10, suggesting it is likely to conclude Digi Media is breaking the law and that it will shut down the so-called permit exemption for good.
“The public interest is served by upholding DCRA’s enforcement and regulatory authority and in ensuring that entities like Digi operating in the District comply fully with the District’s Construction Codes and DCRA orders,” wrote Associate Judge Alfred S. Irving Jr.
Not about to be thwarted, Evans introduced his emergency bill that would require sign permits for certain signs that are “clearly discernible” from nearby properties but also exempt building owners if they received or even sought certain building or electrical permits—or if they installed signs at least 60 days before the bill would take effect. Critics note that the exemption would cover some 50 Digi Media digital signs, including those subject to DCRA stop-work orders and the court’s ruling. Evans withdrew the bill that same day, at least one vote shy of a nine-member “supermajority.”
George Clark of the Federation of Citizens Associations sees the matter as an extension of recent council approval for a “designated entertainment area” at Nats Park that could be replicated almost anywhere in the city under Evans’ bill. The city already is creating such areas at the Convention Center, the site of the new D.C. United soccer stadium, and the site of the Washington Wizards practice facility, he says. “It’s one thing to go through the process to have billboards around sports arenas and stadiums, but to expedite an emergency bill that could result in [digital signs] all over the city, at the end of the legislative session with no public comment, I don’t understand that,” Clark says.
Racine is taking the matter in lawyerly stride. “Our office brought suit against Digi Media, in cooperation with [DCRA], because we believe Digi violated District law,” he says. “While we respect the council’s authority to establish sign policy and legislatively undo the Superior Court’s ruling in this case, our office has heard from many District residents and organizations firmly opposed to the proliferation of these signs.”
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, one of the five votes that caused Evans to back off last week, adds: “I am concerned that this legislation is an end-run around a pending court case and our regulatory system.” Silverman says she prefers the council hold hearings in January to address “long-term negative effects on District residents’ quality of life and the aesthetics of our city.”
But the vulnerability of such a perilously close vote margin was best summed up by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—also one of those five votes last week—as the Nats Park legislation sailed to passage amid heavy corporate lobbying: “It’s very difficult when a large enterprise … comes to the council saying, ‘Well, give us a few signs,’ for the council to then say ‘No.’ They’re major players in the city.”