Despite lawsuits and gift allegations, Lamar moving ahead on billboard | Web Only | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Despite lawsuits and gift allegations, Lamar moving ahead on billboard

Despite legal challenges and new revelations that URA Director Pat Ford and his wife -- Alecia Sirk, the mayor's newly former press secretary -- received gifts from a Lamar Advertising executive, the company said Thursday it's going ahead with constructing its LED billboard anyway.

Samuel Kamin, an attorney representing Lamar in the billboard flap, told reporters after a Thursday April 10 meeting of the Zoning Board of Adjustment that Lamar has been working on the new LED electronic billboard slated to go on the new Grant Street Transportation Center. Kamin said "it's our intent to continue" unless the five councilors opposing him seek an injunction in Common Pleas Court.

According to the city's zoning code, however, any permit under appeal shall be stayed until the matter is resolved. Despite being warned -- by both ZBA members and lawyers representing Councilors Doug Shields, Bill Peduto, Bruce Kraus and Ricky Burgess and an attorney representing Councilor Pat Dowd, who filed his action as a private citizen -- that under city zoning laws that the work should not continue.

But Kamin says that's not how Lamar interprets the law.

"If they want a stay, post a bond, file it in court and ask for a stay," Kamin said. If the Zoning Board rules against Lamar any work done on the board -- currently estimated at around $2 million -- would have to be removed. "We would be at risk," Kamin added.

The ZBA hearing was continued so all sides could file motions with the board by 5 p.m. on April 15. The board is expected to rule on those motions at its next meeting, 10 a.m. April 17.

Additionally, Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko asked City Solicitor George Specter to get her outside counsel: Specter recently issued a legal opinion that the city's process of swapping 1 LED billboard for six vinyl ones — a process that Tymoczko approved — should not be continued.

The debate started when city officials gave Lamar a permit to put an LED billboard on the Grant Street Transportation Center when construction is completed later this year. Some council members challenged the issuance of the permit, saying it had to be approved by the planning commission and city council. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration contended that a precedent had already been set, arguing that because the city's code is silent on LED billboards, any previous swaps were proper.

However, the billboard debacle has taken several twists and turns in the past several days. URA Director Pat Ford has been placed on paid leave while the state ethics commission determines if gifts he accepted from Lamar executive Jim Vlasach over the years. Ford has brokered a number of billboard swaps with Lamar starting with his days as zoning administrator under Mayor Tom Murphy.

Ford's wife, mayoral Press Secretary Alecia Sirk resigned April 9 after it was revealed that she accepted a surround sound entertainment system from Vlasach. Kamin says that the issues with Vlasach are separate from the billboard issue.

Attorney Tom McGough, who represents the council members except Dowd, says he will be looking into the "circumstances surrounding the issuance of the permit."

In addition to this, Lamar has also filed a civil lawsuit against the five members of council who filed the zoning appeal alleging that they colluded in violation of the Sunshine act to target Lamar. The Sunshine Act requires that when a quorum of council is present -- in this case five -- that the meeting be public. However, Dowd filed his action first and separate from the other members as a private citizen and not a council member. The remaining four would not make a quorum.

A hearing on motions in that case is slated for 9:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12.

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