A group of people, most wearing green shirts and face masks, raise their hands and cheer in the Oakland City Council chambers. Several carry signs that say "Aye."
Nema Link of Becker Boards and supporters cheer during a City Council meeting to approve a $73 million development deal for Becker and Outfront Foster interstate. Credit: Natalie Orenstein.

Oakland officials approved a billboard development deal with two companies that will add millions of dollars to the coffers of the city and community organizations over the next four decades. But a rival firm claims the city’s deal-making process was tainted by lies, secrecy, and possible violations of government transparency laws.

On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council voted 6-0 to allow Becker Boards LLC and Outfront Foster Interstate LLC to remove 50 existing advertising signs throughout Oakland and replace these with 10 new double-sided digital billboards near freeways. Councilmembers Kevin Jenkins and Janani Ramachandran were not present for the vote. 

Three councilmembers who endorsed the deal when it was first proposed—Noel Gallo, Rebecca Kaplan, and Jenkins—said in a recent report these agreements will generate over $73 million in revenue for the city over 41 years. Becker and Outfront will also pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to several community service providers and offer free advertising for local chambers of commerce and community organizations. The Community and Economic Development committee voted on May 23 to put the agreements on the City Council’s consent agenda, so it was approved with little discussion along with many other resolutions.  

Dozens of residents and representatives from several organizations—including the Native American Health Center, the West Oakland Health Center, and La Clinica de La Raza, which will be recipients of funds under this deal—cheered the council’s decision. The deal has also received support from local lobbyists, including Isaac Kos-Read and Michael Colbruno. Lobbyist Jason Overman represented Clear Channel in talks with city officials, including councilmembers and the mayor’s office, about proposed revisions to Oakland’s billboard law.

Nema Link, Becker’s director of land development, said the coalition of groups helped create the “unprecedented” deal. Councilmember Noel Gallo, one of the primary supporters of the Becker-Outfront agreements, praised city staff and the companies for creating an arrangement that puts money directly in the hands of service providers. Gallo and other officials are eager for more long-term revenue sources because the city faces a record-breaking $360 million shortfall in its general fund over the next two years. Mayor Sheng Thao’s proposed budget zeroes out the deficit using one-time fixes that don’t resolve the city’s structural financial problems.   

“This is an effort that will generate revenue that will go straight back to the neighborhood where it belongs,” Gallo said.

Oakland has banned the installation of new billboards since 1997, according to a City Council report. Most of the city’s billboards are sited along or between I-880 and I-580, and the law only lets companies relocate or renovate existing signs.

A billboard featuring a calm sea and sunset advertises a university medical center. The billboard stands above a busy intersection. In the distant background are the Oakland hills.
A billboard on High Street & Coliseum Way in Oakland, Calif. June 6, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

A rival billboard firm, Clear Channel Outdoor, tried to stall the deal with a last-minute appeal to Oakland officials on Monday. Clear Channel previously submitted its own proposed relocation agreement to the City Council—one that it claimed would have paid out more money than the Becker-Outfront deal. Staff evaluated Clear Channel’s proposal in informational reports, but it was not placed on the agenda or formally considered by the council.

In a scathing letter sent by the company’s lawyer to City Council, Clear Channel argued that Oakland’s process for approving the latest agreements was “tainted by factually inaccurate and defamatory commentary” from Becker-Outfront. Specifically, Clear Channel claimed Link made misrepresentations about the viability of its proposed sites during the May committee hearing. Clear Channel also claimed that Becker-Outfront has waged a misinformation campaign since last year.   

“Mr. Link’s allegations are misleading at best, and in the main lack any basis in fact,” the letter stated. “Such inaccuracies are harmful on their face.”

A recent staff report said three of Clear Channel’s proposed sites are not viable and the rest are either viable or need to be further evaluated. Becker-Outfront said the majority of Clear Channel sites—15 out of the 18—cannot be developed. Link also noted that Clear Channel has claimed it can build in residential zones, even though Caltrans has stated otherwise. Councilmembers Noel Gallo, Rebecca Kaplan, and Kevin Jenkins, who endorsed the Becker-Outfront deal, said in their own report that most of Clear Channel’s sites were not viable or would require remedies.

Clear Channel also pushed back on claims that it holds a monopoly on the local billboard market. A report from the City Council noted that all of Oakland’s relocation agreements since 2003 have been with Clear Channel. The monopoly claim was also a significant part of Becker-Outfront’s messaging: during the committee meeting last month, Becker-Outfront supporters waved “Monopoly” board games whenever Clear Channel representatives spoke.

Clear Channel argued that not only is the monopoly label inaccurate—it distorts the fact that Becker’s partner, Outfront Foster Interstate, is the dominant player when it comes to modern, digital billboards in Oakland.

According to a report filed by Clear Channel, Outfront operates 10 digital billboards in Oakland, while Clear Channel has five. Clear Channel noted that if Becker-Outfront’s proposal is approved, it would let the companies create an additional 20 digital billboard faces in the city, dropping Clear Channel’s share of the market to 14.3% from 33.3%.

The report also notes that Outfront and a subsidiary, Foster Interstate Media, operate over 44% of all static and digital billboards in Alameda County that are permitted by Caltrans near freeways. That number doesn’t include billboards and signs that are located further away from freeways. Clear Channel runs over 40% of all signs in Alameda County that are permitted near freeways. 

Asked whether Clear Channel is considering litigation against Becker-Outfront, Bob Schmitt, regional president for Clear Channel Outdoor-Northern California, said, “We are definitely leaving all of our options open.”

Link told The Oaklandside he’s not concerned about litigation from Clear Channel.

“I have made no factually inaccurate statements,” Link said. “I stand behind every claim I made at the Community and Economic Development meeting.”

A deal making process “shrouded in mystery”

A billboard advertising an attorney, who is shown smiling with her arms crossed. The billboard rests above a beige building at an intersection near a BART train.
A billboard operated by Clear Channel on High Street & San Leandro Street in Oakland, Calif. June 6, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Clear Channel said city staff requested a proposal from the firm, and that it put together a relocation agreement that would pay Oakland $88 million more in revenue than the Becker-Outfront agreements.

But two of the councilmembers who endorsed the Becker-Outfront deal—Noel Gallo and Rebecca Kaplan—refused to meet with Clear Channel to discuss the proposal, said Sarah Fishleder, director of development for Clear Channel Outdoor-Northern California.  

Gallo told The Oaklandside he did not receive a meeting request from Clear Channel to discuss a proposal. Kaplan’s office directed inquiries to Gallo.

In its recent letter, Clear Channel said it’s unclear whether city officials considered a formal bid process and what criteria officials used to evaluate competing proposals. Clear Channel suggested that councilmembers ignored a staff report that showed it had a stronger proposal. The company also questioned whether the city did its due diligence reviewing the alleged misrepresentations made by Becker-Outfront.

“We’re kind of struggling to figure out what process was in fact followed here,” Schmitt said.

Clear Channel also accused the Community and Economic Development Committee of potentially violating the Brown Act and the Oakland Sunshine Ordinance by not giving prior public notice about a presentation Link gave during the May meeting. These are state and local laws that require governing bodies to conduct their business publicly and provide notice ahead of time about the topics a meeting will cover.

By accepting Becker-Outfront’s bid, Oakland isn’t precluded from arranging a separate agreement with Clear Channel. But practically speaking, it would be more difficult to get approval for a deal when the market is oversaturated with billboards, Schmitt told The Oaklandside.  

The City Administrator’s Office did not respond to questions about Oakland’s process for evaluating billboard relocation agreements.

Where will the new billboards be located? 

Becker-Outfront said it has received preliminary approval letters from Caltrans for permits for nine out of 10 of their proposed development sites. Link noted that these sites are tentative. According to a packet submitted to council, the proposed sites of the double-sided digital billboards are located at the following locations:

  • 1357 5th Street
  • 8099 Coliseum Way
  • 4701 Oakport
  • 1001 22nd Avenue
  • 601 Brush Street
  • 3650 Mandela Parkway
  • 277 5th Street
  • 3700 Mandela Parkway
  • 2982 E 7th Street
  • 3401 E 8th Street

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.