Ad Hawk Activism – Eye Weekly (10.7.09)

Rami Tabello has won a lot of battles in his guerrilla war against illegal billboards — and, soon, city hall will have his back

Riding with Rami Tabello when he’s on illegal-billboard patrol is a harrowing adventure. Acceleration comes in brief, block-long bursts. Equilibrium-shifting U-turns are a regular occurrence. No gap in traffic seems too tight for him to squeeze his red Mini through. No amount of honking deters him from creeping through an intersection in order to observe the distances between two rooftop signs, and his four-way flashers get heavy use.

He drives like a man on a crusade, and behaves like one too: an anti-hero operating above the law to bring down the companies who have covered Toronto in illegitimate advertising.

Stick Tabello in a City Hall committee room, surrounded by councillors, billboard lobbyists, concerned citizens and public-space advocates and he’s less brazen, but equally driven. Normally clad in a black leather jacket and button-down shirt, which add to the crisp GQ stylishness of his perpetually shaved head, Tabello looks, if not out of place, a little too intense for something like a public consultation.

Still, there’s a reason the city’s licensing and standards chair, Howard Moscoe, considers Tabello a public hero, and why he occasionally defers to him during meetings about billboards. That’s because for two and a half years, Tabello has been doing, in his spare time and at his own expense, what a whole city department gets paid to take care of — and he’s been doing it better.

Tabello has spent countless hours mounting a case against the rampant spread of illegal billboards in Toronto by photographing them, filing hundreds of Freedom of Information requests to determine if those billboards are permitted by the city, sloughing through mind-numbing, detail-intensive reports and cataloguing it all on his website, http://www.IllegalSigns.ca. All of this, I’ll remind you, on his own dime. As he explained to me back in 2007 when I was first introduced to the world of illegal billboards: “The work is kind of overwhelming. But it’s kind of fun.” The work has also been paying off: Tabello has forced the removal of over 100 billboards. And the payoff is about to get bigger, when the city introduces a new bylaw next month regulating the industry.

THE BIG SIGN-OFF
What makes a billboard illegal is that it’s not supposed to be there — usually because there’s no city permit for it. In Toronto, erecting 100-metre advertisements in the wrong place is easier than you would think. Mostly, it’s because the bylaws that say where billboards can go and how big they may be are extremely confusing — a tangle of conflicting regulations left over from when the seven former municipalities amalgamated into the City of Toronto. For years, billboard companies have taken advantage of this situation to put up all kinds of signs — many of which were even improperly approved by the city. A further complication comes with the recent industry standard of replacing traditional painted billboards with easy-to-erect, printed, vinyl fascia signs, which aren’t mentioned in the bylaws at all.

When Tabello began working on IllegalSigns.ca, he estimated that if the billboard industry and those in charge of enforcing its regulation were following even the imperfect bylaws that currently exist — to Tabello’s satisfaction, anyway — about half of the approximately 4,000 billboards in Toronto would have to be taken down.

Tabello’s campaign is one of the main reasons city hall has even bothered to take billboard regulation seriously. After about a year’s worth of planning, including the usual ongoing delays (and some unusual strike-related delays), the city is preparing to release a draft of a new sign bylaw as well as a new billboard tax next month — both of which will replace the long-outdated mess of amalgamated bylaws from the pre-megacity days.

Based on the many planning meetings I’ve attended, the city has taken great pains to clearly define third-party signs (signs put up on other people’s buildings, rather than signs that advertise the business inside the building) right down to what they can be made of and — most relevant to the general public — where they are allowed to be. There are also plans for an online database so people can check for themselves if their local building-sized ad is kosher, as well as an outright ban on any new roof signs and, for the first time ever, a requirement that all companies putting up billboards be licensed by the city.

This bylaw, when it eventually passes, will be a much-needed first step in clearing visual clutter. Tabello has been there every step of the way; keeping a close eye on the details, making deputations and even working as a consultant. “It’s pretty damn exciting,” he says when I ask him how it feels to see his efforts having such an impact. “It’s pretty scary too, that some kid sitting in his living room with a Hotmail address can make such a big difference.”

Of course, in the time it has taken city staff to almost get the bylaw draft together, IllegalSigns.ca has had more than 100 illegal signs taken down. Clearly, Tabello works at a different pace than city hall — but then, he doesn’t need to worry about political backlash. “The tax is going to screw the industry,” he intones as we head north on Bathurst Street into the illegal billboard haven of North York back in late April. “The industry thought they weren’t going to get screwed by the tax, now they’re realizing that they’re going to get raped by the tax. It’s beautiful. You can quote me on that.”

From the billboard companies’ perspective, all this taxing and licensing means that selling ad space will be a tough gig. According to billboard lobbyists, it takes about 15 years to earn back the investment on a billboard and, in a highly competitive market where space is shrinking, even that will be difficult.

Astral Media’s president of integrated media sales, Ron Hutchinson, says he supports enhanced enforcement and a more organized system, but is most concerned that the industry has been left out of the process. “It would be fair to say we’re in the dark about something that will greatly affect our future. Same goes for the tax issue.”

Competition, however, is what Tabello will tell you prompted such dubious practices in the first place. (Well, that and the city’s total jobfail at keeping track of billboards at all — legal or otherwise.) “Up until recently, the companies were very careful about their illegal activities,” Tabello explains.

Even Hutchinson agrees. “There are companies that don’t even bother with the process. And that, more than anything else, I think, is what has led to the current problem. There are companies who just dispense with the entire permit process.”

“Sign companies represent huge dollars in Toronto,” says Councillor Moscoe. This is true both in terms of the industry itself, as well as the amount of money that these companies spend on campaign donations — Toronto Public Space Committee spokesperson Jonathan Goldsbie claims billboard companies rank second among industries in corporate donations to municipal politicians. And while having Tabello as a rogue private enforcement agent calling out such companies has forced the city to crack down on some of its substantial supporters — keep in mind that Astral Media also holds the contract to supply and maintain all of Toronto’s street furniture — at least they are willing to recognize that there is a problem. “It has reached the point of saturation,” Moscoe continues, “and the only way these companies can grow is by pushing the limits.”

ONE-MAN MOVEMENT
For all his brash talk about taking down the illegal billboard trade, Tabello is modest, if not downright guarded about the man behind the cause. He’s from Etobicoke, his mother works in real estate and his father is a teacher, and he studied economics at U of T — all details that he gives as facts rather than clues. Speaking over Americanos at iDeal on Ossington, he does offer one personal insight, explaining that, despite his Palestinian background, his middle name is Nader, “after Ralph Nader,” he says. “So maybe there’s something in that.”

Tabello credits his interest in illegal billboards to Toronto Public Space Committee (TPSC) founder Dave Meslin and Spacing magazine publisher Matt Blackett, and got his start working with both of them when he was involved with the TPSC’s Billboard Battalion — a group that sent people to public hearings to oppose zoning variances allowing billboards. Back then, he was simply amazed to find out that half the billboards in the city were illegal. Equally eye-opening was the fact that such a grassroots organization and its spinoff enterprises like Spacing magazine seemed to be influencing some aspects of city policy.

Meslin founded the TPSC back in 2001 in an effort to protect the city’s public spaces — streets, sidewalks, parks, etc. — because these places are owned by the citizens of Toronto, whether we know it or not. It’s the kind of activism that coincided with much of David Miller’s mayoral philosophy and helped define what’s known as the Torontopia movement.

Following the teachings of Jane Jacobs, the group helped draw attention to things that we take for granted, like the health of trees, the importance of transit and cycling infrastructure and whether or not advertising is appropriate in city-owned spaces. One of the group’s first big accomplishments was preventing a video billboard on the Bloor viaduct. The Billboard Battalion arm of the group was one of the first organizations to question, and take action against, the proliferation of ad space.

But Tabello wasn’t long for life as a team player. “They basically kicked me out,” he says of his split with the open-membership, consensus-driven TPSC. His relationship with the group came to a head when they started drawing legal fire from some of the companies they were criticizing. At this point, Meslin had left the group as an official member in order to found the Toronto Cyclists’ Union. “After Mez left, TPSC lost their way. They were wrapped up in their own bureaucracy,” says Tabello of the tempered approach. “But I was encouraged by Mez to start my own thing.”

And therein lies the effectiveness of IllegalSigns.ca: Tabello is responsible only to himself and his cause, and he is willing to face down the occasional threat of a lawsuit (none of those threats have, yet, actually landed him in court). This isn’t your garden-variety protest group, writing letters to the local councillor or picketing a proposed development — exercises that most often result in the kind of community disappointment that perpetuates apathy and a sense that city government doesn’t really work. After all, even the most effective community groups still have to deal with internal politics on some level. “What I do is not a democracy,” Tabello plainly states.

“Community groups are weak; weaker than corporations who have the ability to hire and fire based on competence,” he argues. “Community groups gain strength from the cause, and lose it by not having the ability to do what corporations do — like eliminate toxic personalities. They get people who are passionate but incompetent.”

BEHIND THE CURTAIN
IllegalSigns.ca may seem like something of a one-man nation — an undeniably effective one, mind you — and there is no superpower propping it up from afar. Tabello, his webmaster and a handful of volunteer “sign spotters” are the only ones directly involved. Through his work, however, Tabello now boasts a number of powerful like-minded allies — Moscoe and Beautiful City Alliance’s Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler to name a couple — and has even managed to secure the support of some billboard-industry insiders.

As for the time and money he’s committed to this endeavour, Tabello keeps a pretty open schedule thanks to his success as a professional online gambler. It’s something he says he’s been doing well at for about five years, and which makes for a very different kind of non-profit organization. “It was a big investment at first,” he admits of the IllegalSigns.ca start-up, “but I was having fun and had the money. I didn’t care. Money doesn’t matter.”

Results, on the other hand, matter greatly. Tabello has often noted that this is the only industry where companies are essentially flaunting the fact that they are breaking rules — three-storey iPod ads being not what you’d call stealthy undertakings. Consequently, it’s also much easier to see his impact all over the city in the form of naked brick walls and empty billboard frames.

Of course, Tabello is well-aware of the civic culture in which he is working. “If I was doing this and city councillors didn’t believe in it and the mayor didn’t believe in it, and if people didn’t believe in it, then I’d get nowhere. I’m grateful that Miller is in power. If John Tory was the mayor I don’t think we’d be getting this bylaw.”

BRACING FOR THE BACKLASH
Despite his admirable aims, the illegal-billboard expert is hardly hoisted in the arms of cheerleaders everywhere he goes. For a time, the city tried to ban him from filing Freedom of Information requests because staff were overloaded just responding to his workload. Even Moscoe admits that, as far as diplomacy is concerned, Tabello could stand to control his “impulse to point personal fingers.” A brief survey of some of the more colourful headlines on his website — including that a certain corporate titans’ “100% assurance is worth shit,” that a company’s recent press release is “a pack of lies” and “Oh yeah, we almost forgot. [billboard company] Abcon threatened to sue us, too” — should be an indicator that he’s not in this to make friends.

This is not to say that Tabello is ignorant of the effects of his antagonistic approach. In fact, he celebrates it. “Using harsh language was justified. It has served me very well,” he says. “It demonized the billboard industry. We destroyed their reputation based on the facts. And the fact that their reputations are destroyed makes our jobs easier. And it makes the city’s job in imposing this tax even easier. I think the harsh language has done nothing but help our cause.”

Consequently, if it seems like Tabello has a tendency to alienate his allies, his relationship with his enemies is much more cut and dried. The legal threats from Astral, Abcon, CBS Outdoor, Titan and the original Clear Channel vs TPSC scare pretty much speak for themselves, and all are thoroughly detailed on Tabello’s website.

On the phone, Hutchinson of Astral Media is surprisingly diplomatic, saying of Tabello, “Naturally he’s a little exuberant. He seems to also classify variances as illegal billboards from time to time. He would declare something illegal if something was four inches from where it was supposed to be. And so similarly, if your fence is an inch too high, I guess it’s illegal. But it’s not that exact a science.”

Tabello’s prickly language isn’t limited to the billboard industry either; he’s been consistently critical of Toronto’s buildings department — which is responsible for issuing billboard permits — and especially harsh on chief building official Ann Borooah. She responds saying, “I’ve got a thick skin,” and reiterates that enforcement was pretty fragmented for the past decade. “Enforcement is also complaints-driven, and people only started paying attention to this in the past few years,” she adds. Despite the criticism, she does admit that IllegalSigns.ca and the Billboard Batallion have drawn attention to the issue in a public way, which has helped to secure the resources for such a large undertaking as harmonizing the sign bylaw and imposing a new tax on an entire industry.

MOVING FORWARD
While Tabello’s mercenary approach to activism might not be a template for every issue, it certainly demonstrates that tenacity can be rewarding, especially when you are right. What’s more, rather than seeing activism as a way to make people aware of a problem, he has taken it upon himself to solve the problem. It’s less like theatre and more like detective work. In this regard, Tabello has more in common with Mark Mattson, the former criminal lawyer who has assumed the role of Lake Ontario’s Waterkeeper, or even the hands-on work of the Sewage Sisters — Toronto’s legendary environmental activists. (See below)

But just because his approach to billboards in Toronto is on its way to being legitimized, doesn’t mean that he’s looking to join the establishment. “City councillors are underappreciated, underpaid and overworked,” he says when questioned about aspirations beyond IllegalSigns.ca. “It’s a rewarding job, but those guys have a work ethic that is incompatible with my life.”

Besides, even though he says he’s happy with the new bylaws that will govern the billboard industry and excited that there will be city staff dedicated to billboard enforcement, he’s not about to retire. He’s wary of the fact that these enforcers will still report to the chief building official. “This represents a reform of the law without actually fixing the bureaucratic problem,” he laments. “Will they have the courage to undo the erroneous permits?”

Despite the fact that Tabello would make for a seriously effective and somewhat terrifying billboard czar, it’s doubtful whether the city could afford his car insurance. Policing the billboard industry when you don’t have a siren on your car does have one drawback: “I just got a letter from the MTO regarding my demerit points.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly.

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