Street Illegal – Eye Weekly (3.29.07)

Street illegal

Rami Tabello is doing the work city hall won’t to find illegal billboards – so why does the clerk’s office say he’s frivolous?

Right here, we had this sign taken down… whoa, it’s back up. I have to take a picture of that.” In the middle of Peter Street, just south of Queen West, Rami Tabello jams his candy-apple red Mini into park and flips on the four-ways. “That’s a re-erection,” he says excitedly, like he’s spotted a smack-addled celebrity. “Hold on,” he tells me, and screws his body around in the cramped driver’s seat to snap a photo of an illegal billboard that was as of yesterday triumphantly removed – thanks to his efforts. But by now I’m accustomed to the erratic braking and aggravated honking as we stop to gawk like yokel tourists, paying dangerously little attention to the midday traffic in Toronto’s entertainment district.

For the past half hour, I’ve been riding shotgun with Tabello as he takes me on a sightseeing tour of Toronto’s illegal third-party billboards. Throughout our conversation, he interjects constantly to point out specific offenders, rhyming them off like old acquaintances: “That’s a re-erection; this variance was rejected by the city; that sign has a mural permit but they’ve hung a vinyl fascia.” I can barely keep them straight, let alone plot our travels.

But Tabello knows the route, expertly threading his tiny car though the gridlocked streets. “Downtown’s not such a huge place,” he says. “[The work] can get overwhelming but it’s worth it.” And after explaining the five violations at a particularly ill-advertised intersection, he sums up the lesson: “So, you see, it’s everywhere. But it’s kind of fun.”

Fun? OK, riding with Tabello is a bit of a thrill. But keeping tabs on the illegal billboard scene in Toronto is an ambitious undertaking – not necessarily a job for everyone. According to Tabello, it’s not even a job for the Municipal Licensing and Standards Division (MLS). That’s why he and his webmaster spent six months researching the billboards in Toronto – over half of which he’s determined to be illegal because they lack necessary permits from the city – to develop the obsessively detailed critique of space pollution at http://www.illegalsigns.ca.

But while a website boasting an interactive Google map of over 350 illegal billboards and street-level catalogues of entire neighbourhoods worth of infractions makes for compulsively informative reading, not everyone is impressed by the extent of his investigation. The city clerk’s office has served Tabello with a letter denying him access to any more billboard files, charging the requests made for his research with being “frivolous and vexatious.”

Kevin Sack, the city’s director of strategic communications assured me that the city clerk has “evaluated the inquiry as such that it’s to be considered frivolous and vexatious and that’s within her authority to do it.” Since the matter is under appeal, he wouldn’t discuss the details.

Part of the charge stems from the fact that, at the time, Tabello had “submitted 625 access requests of which 338 have been completed,” according to the letter (which is posted on Tabello’s website). Admittedly, this seems like a rather tedious pattern of requests. But in light of what he has uncovered – that roughly half of Toronto’s downtown billboards are violating municipal law – it appears that he is taking heat for being thorough.

“We’re doing the city’s job aren’t we?” he says. “And we have to because if we don’t, they’re too incompetent to do it. I mean we’ve gone through their files and we’ve found that 80 per cent of the signs they investigated they thought were legal because the inspectors had no idea how to tell between a legal sign and an illegal sign.”

I’m curious as to whether this offensive approach may be the root of the conflict with the clerk’s office. “We got a response from the clerk based on the amount of data we’re asking the city for. So the clerk said, ‘We don’t want to give you all this data because it’s causing us a lot of work.’ On the other hand, we got a very good response from the buildings department… they were really the only department to take our complaints seriously.”

But the conflict with city hall is only a slight snag in an otherwise mounting campaign by Tabello to impact what he calls “a vast culture of non-compliance in this industry.” Paid for out of his own pocket and with minimal public donations, Illegal Signs operates on a modest budget and the belief that what they are doing is a form of environmental activism. “We don’t know how to fight global warming or how to fight smog, we’re not that smart,” he concedes. “The outdoor advertising industry is the only industry in the world whose illegal activity is specifically designed to be seen. So it’s an easy way to make a big difference.”

As for this obsession with signs, “Billboards always bugged me. And then I met [Toronto Public Space Committee founder] Dave Meslin and he told me that half these things are illegal,” he says. “Our research is just flowing from the basic work that Meslin did. He’s the godfather of this whole thing.” But after working with the Toronto Public Space Committee, “we decided to spin this off and make it a separate organization, so we’d have more freedom and more independence. But it’s a bit of a riskier gig. We’ve gotten letters from lawyers. We’ve also been much more aggressive.” And they are starting to see results.

As of mid-March, Tabello claims victory over about 30 illegal billboards, a fraction of the 300 complaints he has filed with MLS. But despite symbolic gestures like “a call from the CEO of Titan saying they’re not going to operate [the sign above the Black Bull on Queen] anymore,” many sites constitute an ongoing struggle. Almost half of the 30 victories have experienced some form of relapse, as signs are easily re-erected on the structures that remain. Still many more signs remain operational as a result of incremental enforcement.

Lance Cumberbatch, director of investigations for MLS, recognizes the magnitude of the task at hand, explaining that “initially we had to determine how we were going to deal with this,” but now “the objective is to go down the list and deal with these [complaints].” And despite a website “written in a way that might not be appropriate for a response from the city,” where MLS is frequently targeted, Cumberbatch admits that the complaints submitted to the city have been helpful. “He did a fair bit of work and I give him credit for that,” he says. “He has highlighted a problem and we have put in place a strategy to address it.” And though both organizations target the same problem, Tabello has undertaken the doubly daunting task of watching both the offenders and the enforcers.

Which is what he will be doing until the hearing for his appeal. His access to information privileges are currently suspended, but with the website a just over a month old, he says, “We have a massive backlog. We have a stack like this,” he says, holding his hands a foot and a half apart, “and the city’s still sending us stuff that they haven’t yet processed.” After all, the city clerk’s letter is dated Jan. 23, but didn’t grace the website until March 12. “We had so many things,” he says, “[and] there are still some surprising things that we’re going to address. You can’t put it all out there on day one. Then you’ll have nothing left.” But I have a sneaking suspicion that the supply of illegal signs won’t be exhausted any time soon.

Originally published in Eye Weekly.

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