A group of people in green shirts waving Monopoly boardgames in a white room with a vaunted ceiling. In the foreground are chairs and a desk.
Advocates of a proposed billboard agreement with two companies protest a competing proposal by Clear Channel Outdoor during a committee meeting on May 23, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe

Oakland officials are one step away from approving a billboard development deal that could generate millions of dollars for the city and community organizations for the next forty years. But accusations of monopoly, deception, and bad faith traded between rival companies during a raucous council meeting have muddied an already complex business deal.  

On Tuesday, the Community and Economic Development Committee unanimously approved a joint-proposal from two billboard companies—Becker Boards LLC and Outfront Foster Interstate LLC—to remove 50 existing advertising signs throughout the city in exchange for 10 new double-sided digital billboards near freeways. According to the companies’ proposal, the agreements would net the city $68 million over 41 years.

Importantly, the companies have also promised hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for nonprofit service providers and free advertising for local chambers of commerce and community organizations. Dozens of stakeholders from health clinics, social justice organizations, and business groups attended the meeting to support the Becker-Outfront proposal. 

The billboard revenue is especially attractive to nonprofits who will find it hard to obtain grant funding from the city in the next two years, and possibly further out. Due to declines in the real estate market and rising costs, Oakland’s mayor recently proposed a budget plan with major service cuts to address a $360 million shortfall in the city’s general fund. 

A billboard turf war

The full City Council will consider the Becker-Outfront proposal durings its June 6 meeting. The item is on the consent calendar, which means it may be voted on along with other items without discussion unless a councilmember pulls it for consideration. 

Proponents of the Becker-Outfront deal say if approved, it will mark the end of a virtual billboard monopoly held for years by one company, Clear Channel Outdoor.

According to Councilmembers Noel Gallo, Kevin Jenkins, and Rebecca Kaplan, who submitted a report supporting the Becker-Outfront deal, Oakland banned the installation of new billboards in 1997 and since 2003 has only allowed existing signs to be relocated or renovated. In 2020, the City Council asked the Planning Commission to suggest amendments to Oakland’s billboard ordinance to make it easier to develop signs on private property. Those amendments haven’t been approved by the city yet. Most of Oakland’s billboards are clustered along or between I-880 and I-580. 

In the last 20 years, the city has agreed to five of these so-called relocation agreements, all with Clear Channel. According to the City Council’s report, these agreements have netted Oakland about $2.8 million total over the course of their contracts.

Shortly after Becker and Outfront submitted their written proposal to the city last month, Clear Channel presented its own plan to convert existing signs to digital and install a pair of new billboards. According to documents filed with the city, Clear Channel would pay Oakland $155 million over four decades—$88 million more than Becker-Outfront’s proposal. Clear Channel says it would also install fewer new billboard structures than its competitors and offer the same amount of free advertising to small businesses and nonprofits.

The Tuesday meeting’s agenda did not include a resolution to consider Clear Channel’s proposal, and councilmembers did not take a vote regarding it. Staff did make a presentation analyzing the different proposals. 

A man with black hair and a beard in a blue suit and white shirt holding a microphone points at a graph. In the background is a gold mezzanine with filigree. Behind the man is a gray-haired man with glasses with his arms folded wearing a gray shirt and blue pants.
Nema Link, director of land development for Becker Boards, discusses his proposed billboard agreement with Oakland’s Economic and Community Development committee on May 23, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe

During Tuesday’s meeting, Nema Link, director of land development for Becker, claimed most of Clear Channel’s proposed sites won’t work. Link said 15 of the 18 sites in Clear Channel’s plan would violate state Department of Transportation, city, or industry requirements. He also accused Clear Channel of paying the city under the market rate for its billboards for decades.

“If Clear Channel wants to bring the city offers, I suggest they first make the city whole for the last 20 years of exploitation,” Link said. 

Lobbyist Isaac Kos-Read, who has represented Becker before city officials, accused Clear Channel of trying to deceive Oakland with a deal that wouldn’t generate as much revenue as the company claims.

“Can you believe the audacity?” Kos-Read said, before turning and pointing at a Clear Channel representative in the audience. “Shame on you!”

Bob Schmitt, regional president for Clear Channel Outdoor-Northern California, protested the negative characterizations of his firm. He noted that Clear Channel employs members from local unions and has contributed to Oakland causes, like the Alameda County District Attorney’s anti-trafficking campaigns. While Schmitt spoke, supporters of the other companies’ plan held up “Monopoly” board games behind him.  

Schmitt also accused Becker and Outfront of making serious misrepresentations to the committee about the viability of his firm’s proposal.

“There’s a lot of things about landscape freeways that Mr. Link talked about that just factually are inaccurate,” Schmitt said. “There was a lot of inaccuracy.”

Sarah Fishleder, director of development for Clear Channel Outdoor-Northern California, said she was dismayed by what she called mischaracterizations and misrepresentations about the company’s business practices. As an example, she said Link falsely claimed that one of Clear Channel’s leases doesn’t have the option to convert to digital.

“It’s very important to stress that quite frankly, regardless of what the City Council chooses, the nonprofit coalition will get more funds from Clear Channel in the way we structured our offer,” Fishleder said, noting that the city had asked Clear Channel to present a proposal.

City staff flag “not accurate” claims

According to a staff report, the city is concerned about four of Becker-Outfront’s proposed sites and two of Clear Channel’s because they are located in residential neighborhoods. The report also notes that unlike typical developments, none of the neighbors near any of the proposed signs have been notified about the potential billboard conversions. 

But Brendan Moriarty, the city’s real property asset manager, said that Becker-Outfront’s assertions about other Clear Channel sites were incorrect.

“A number of the representations here are just not accurate from our analysis and from what Caltrans has told us,” Moriarty said, referring to the state Department of Transportation. He listed several examples, including a billboard that Becker-Outfront incorrectly said Clear Channel couldn’t convert into a digital sign.  

The staff report highlighted the benefits of the Clear Channel agreement compared to Becker-Outfront. A third proposal from a firm called Champion Outdoor Ventures was dismissed in the report as unworkable.

“The Clear Channel proposal is the strongest proposal by a significant margin in terms of both revenue and visual impacts on the city,” staff said.

The report also stated the Becker-Outfront proposal has a weaker escalator provision—the clause that dictates how much the companies will increase their annual payments to the city over time. According to the report, Becker-Outfront’s elevator provision is equivalent to 0.6% each year, and it doesn’t track growth in the Consumer Price Index  or compound annually. By comparison, Clear Channel’s escalator is 2.5% and does track the CPI. Councilmember Dan Kalb made a friendly amendment to the Becker-Outfront proposal to increase the escalator to an average of 1% per year.

Councilmember Carroll Fife asked staff to provide the city with Caltrans’ assessment of the proposed sites before the next council meeting. Fife said she wants “hardcore numbers” about the potential revenue generated by the proposals.

“We got 18 sites that were presented by Clear Channel as viable sites to develop billboards. But we’re hearing from Becker that those are not actual sites,” Fife said. “I want to understand from Caltrans what is real, and what is not, because there’s some disagreement between both parties.”

Three councilmembers from the committee co-sponsored the resolution supporting the Becker-Outfront deal—Noel Gallo, Rebecca Kaplan, and Kevin Jenkins. Kaplan was absent from the meeting. Jenkins and Gallo said during the meeting the deal will benefit Oakland.

“One of the things I was concerned with upon entering City Council is some of the monopolies that have been getting contracts from the city for decades, and the inability for people to enter the market,” Jenkins said. “This proposal breaks down some of the traditional monopolies and allows some new players to come into the market.”

Nonprofits mostly back the Becker-Outfront deal

Dozens of representatives of local organizations spoke out in support of the Becker-Outfront proposal, many citing Link’s trustworthiness and lengthy efforts to court the community.

“I’m really excited to be here today to see this finally come to fruition,” said Chirag Patel, director of planning and development for the Native American Health Center, which would receive revenue under the Becker-Outfront plan. He said the center plans to use the billboard funds to develop a dental clinic and affordable housing program in Fruitvale.  

Under the terms of their proposal, Becker-Outfront would distribute roughly $1 million annually among The Native American Health Center, the Movement Strategy Center’s Career Technical Education Transitional Age Youth Hub, Asian Health Services, the West Oakland Health Council, La Clinical de la Raza, Roots Community Health Center, Oakland LGBTQ Center’s Glenn Burke Wellness Center, and Oakland School for the Arts. Oakland’s general fund would receive $560,000 per year over the lifespan of the agreements.

Becker and Outfront would also provide free advertising to local nonprofits and business groups and their members, including the Unity Council, Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Oakland Latino Chamber of Commerce, Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation, and the tourism nonprofit Visit Oakland.

Naomi Schiff, a board member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, said the city needs to provide more details about how this proposal will work in the long-term, noting that some of the nonprofit beneficiaries of the agreement may not exist in coming years.

“Lastly, if any of you [councilmembers] received campaign funds by any billboard company, you should recuse yourself from this vote,” Schiff said.

According to public records, Becker, Outfront, and Clear Channel have all donated money to Oakland officials. 

Clear Channel Outdoor—which has donated money to Oakland political campaigns since at least 2012—and some of its workers have contributed several thousand dollars to the recent City Council bids of Derreck Johnson, Richard Santos Raya, and Matt Hummel. 

Becker employees gave about $9,000 to the council campaigns of Sheng Thao and Treva Reid. Thao and Reid then used some of this money for their mayoral campaigns.

Foster Interstate Media, a local subsidiary of Outfront Foster Interstate, spent heavily in the last election to support committees backing the mayoral campaigns of Ignacio De La Fuente and Sheng Thao. In 2020, the firm donated $900 to the reelection campaign of Councilmember Dan Kalb, who chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee.

Link doubled down on his claims in an interview after the meeting with The Oaklandside. Link said on the sites he identified as having Caltrans issues, Clear Channel would receive denial letters if it filed for permits, whereas Becker-Outfront has received preliminary approval letters from the agency for nine of its 10 proposed locations. 

“Clear Channel is a billboard company, and should be expected to submit an offer to the City that is actually buildable,” Link said. “For their offer to have such major site issues implies that they never intended to build any of them, and highlights their true intent: to deceive the city in an effort to undermine our coalition proposal.” 

We incorrectly stated that Becker employees contributed to Thao and Reid’s mayoral committees. They in fact contributed to their council committees. But these funds were transferred later to their mayoral committees.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.