Businesses in Nevada have always had a good deal of success at making their interests prevail over the public’s in state and local laws. After a slow start, that is true of the billboard industry.
In the 1920s and ’30s, billboards were illegal in Nevada, which is not to say the law was obeyed. Nevada highway engineer Sam Durkee told companies in 1927 to remove their billboards and signs from along state highways or see them destroyed in compliance with a state law that forbade all advertising alongside highways. A decade later, the same warning was going out.
Eventually, state legislators gave companies permission for billboards in commercially zoned areas. Not satisfied, Haywood Sign Company lawyer Miles Pike in 1947 filed a lawsuit to overturn as unconstitutional the section of the law that barred them from non-commercial areas.
The public was never all that happy with billboards, but once the legislature caved in, they were here to stay—until citizens took the bull by the horns directly. Sixteen years ago in Reno, Citizens for a Scenic Reno filed an initiative petition to curb billboards in the city. They easily obtained the necessary signatures, and the industry filed a competing initiative. But the companies were unable to get the needed signatures and withdrew their petition in July.
The next month, the billboard companies came back with a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) against CSR and the City of Reno in an effort to win in court the battle they didn’t think they could win at the polls. They asked the court to remove the initiative from the general election ballot. They were unsuccessful, both in court and in the November election. The public’s vote was not even close.
We recall all this as a way to show how much hard work citizens put into getting restrictions placed on billboards. It’s important, because the industry can void some of their hard work just by getting cozy with policymakers.
The ballot measure removed any question about where the public stands. It is widely believed that the vote within the city limits was also representative of the county areas.
But most members of the Washoe County Commission and several members of the Reno City Council try to do all they can to accommodate the billboard companies instead of trying to accommodate the public. When billboard issues come up they cut corners, such as by altering the citizen initiative language (an action overridden by the Nevada Supreme Court).
As this editorial goes to press, a meeting of the Reno City Council on billboards is looming that will already have happened when this edition hits the streets. But we decided to go ahead with this editorial because we are less concerned with each specific episode involving billboard law than we are with our public officials, whose default position is to try to help the companies.
There are times when public officials must vote against public sentiment. But this is a case where the people have spoken. Our officials’ default position should be the same as the public’s—curb billboards. And Scenic Nevada, as CSR is now known, should not have to keep fighting the same battles, or keep having to go back to the ballot or to court to keep re-winning the victory it already won.