, Salem, MA

April 8, 2013

Council to hear offer on sign

Peabody: Total Outdoor Corp. proposes settlement over controversial billboard

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — There’s a new settlement offer in the dispute over the location of a Lowell Street billboard, but some Peabody councilors are aiming for nothing less than having Total Outdoor Corp. and its giant sign gone.

Officials are being tight-lipped about details of the offer made by Total Outdoor, but it will be discussed by the City Council in closed session on Wednesday at City Hall at 6:30 p.m.

“Total Outdoor has presented us with a settlement offer,” Mayor Ted Bettencourt said. “We’re required to present the offer to the City Council.” The council, he noted, is “the deciding authority — not me.”

In March, the City Council unanimously rejected an earlier settlement offer to extend an adjacent building, now housing a Subway restaurant, and enclose the bottom portion of the pole within it. Nearby residents have complained that the sign, including the top section, is unsightly.

The billboard was initially constructed after Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead overruled the council’s decision to bar the company from siting the 92-foot structure alongside Interstate 95. After it was built, however, the city went to court complaining that the towering pole hadn’t been placed where the judge wanted it. It was too close to the street, rather than behind the building.

Total Outdoor conceded what it called a “clerical error” and asked the judge to allow the $250,000 structure to remain where it is. Instead, Whitehead left in place a cease-and-desist order issued by Bettencourt, which for now bars any advertising on the sign. The judge suggested that the dispute could be brought back to court or sent again to the council.

Bettencourt promised to let the council know his feelings about the latest offer, but he declined to go into detail. He won’t attend the closed session. City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski will be present to review the offer and discuss the options available to the city.

Councilor Jim Liacos, who explained he has heard some details of the offer, said he’s not optimistic about a settlement.

“I can’t speak for the council as a whole,” he said. “But the only settlement I’m interested in is to take the pole elsewhere — especially to the home of the judge who approved it, preferably in front of his house. ... I don’t understand the judge overriding a local board on a thing like this.”

Liacos doesn’t believe Total Outdoor’s explanation of a clerical error.

Echoing Liacos is Councilor Anne Manning-Martin.

“I’ve been adamant from the get-go that this is no place for a billboard,” she said. “I am not inclined to accept any offer other than them removing it.”

Liacos also expressed frustration that the meeting is being held in closed session, although legal strategies are often debated in secret.

“Let’s put our cards on the table and meet in public,” he said.

Asked if he might make a motion to hold the meeting in public, Liacos lamented that it couldn’t happen. There would be no procedure for alerting interested parties to a public meeting, he said, so — in a rich irony — opening the meeting could violate the Open Meeting Law.