By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — On a hot night the City Council had hot words while voting 10-0 to order city lawyers back into court to fight the effort of Total Outdoor Corp. to move a 92-foot billboard to the spot where a judge originally ordered it to go.
The company has made a motion in Superior Court seeking “relief from judgment,” allowing it to put the Lowell Street billboard in the proper place and end a cease and desist order that prevents it from mounting ads on the structure.
“You read their motion,” said Councilor Anne Manning-Martin, “and it’s laughable.” She accused Total Outdoor lawyer Mitchell Ross of “trying to back his way out of a mistake. ... I find them deceitful. I find them dishonest.”
“This was no mistake,” said Councilor Jim Liacos. “They put it there to get a better location.”
“I’ve never been so appalled reading a document in my entire life,” said Councilor Dave Gravel, referring to the motion. “They acted in bad faith.” Noting that Judge Howard Whitehead of the Superior Court had raised the possibility of sending the billboard company back to the council for a special permit, he laughed, “Good luck to them.”
The meeting was an extraordinary session where councilors listened to legal advice from City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski in open session, with up to 35 residents watching from the gallery. He successfully recommended opposing the Total Outdoor motion for relief and added that he would present the city’s position in court today.
Also looking on, lawyer Jack Keilty, representing Total Outdoor, declared when it was over, “Let the re-election campaigns begin,” suggesting that the councilors were pandering to the voters. He offered his own version of the sequence of events involving the billboard, asserting that the council had originally voted on a plan that would have put the pole mere feet from where it is now.
He conceded, however, that due to an error, that plan wasn’t the one shown to the judge. Keilty noted that councilors seem eager “to go to their graves” with their rejection of this billboard on the record.
Some councilors have made no secret of the fact that they’d like to get rid of the billboard altogether. Residents, particularly on Ledgewood, reacted in horror at the first glimpse of the massive edifice.
Last night Councilor Mike Garabedian called for banning Total Outdoor completely from doing business in Peabody. (The company already has approval for several Peabody billboards.)
The request by Total Outdoor to build a pole and billboard on Lowell Street went before the council last year. Councilors assert that they were told that the pole would be located at the back of the building. The request gained a majority of six councilors, but that was not enough to grant a special permit. The company next appealed the rejection and won approval from Whitehead in the fall.
But when the pole was constructed it was discovered that it was not located where they had told the judge it was going. Instead of being behind a Subway shop, some distance from Lowell Street, it was alongside the building and quite close to the street.
In declining any compromise with Total Outdoor, councilors may be counting on the judge’s sympathy. Council President Tom Gould attended the court session where Whitehead learned of the misplaced billboard and subsequently declined to overrule the mayor’s cease and desist order. “To say the judge was shocked,” he noted last night, “is an understatement.”