Billboard poll overwhelmed

Last month a Nevada organization helped take a local billboard dispute in South Dakota national.

Rapid City has been having a local controversy over billboards, and a moratorium on them was in effect for part of 2010 because billboard companies were taking advantage of a loophole in the current ordinance to convert traditional billboards to digital.

When the South Dakota Legislature was considering a bill on the subject, the Rapid City Journal ran a story and an accompanying reader poll—one of those unscientific surveys that readers can click “yes” or “no.” Initially the survey was running in favor of billboards, 67 to 32 percent. Then Scenic America board member Bill Brinton, a lawyer who also represents Scenic Jacksonville in his Florida hometown, started invoking the aid of organizations both in and out of South Dakota for help with a message to his mailing list.

In Reno, Doug Smith of Scenic Nevada sent out a message to his mailing list with a link to the Journal story and the message, “Go to the link below and vote yes.”

Pretty soon the Rapid City newspaper was getting huge numbers of votes and began to suspect manipulation. Online editor Claudia Laws told us, “We ended up getting spammed from an email alert that went out to a specific audience, and we were getting very skewed numbers, so we pulled it.” She said she did not know the final tally.

In Reno, a similar billboard dispute is ongoing. Scenic Nevada used an initiative petition to put a measure curbing billboards on the November 7, 2000 ballot. The measure was approved by Reno voters 57 to 43 percent. It banned any new billboards. But companies are now arguing that when they replace an existing billboard with a digital billboard, it is not a new billboard but a modification of an old one.