Commercial sign industry offering money to Toronto city councillors: Vaughan

by Amanda Kwan

Dec 2, 2009

Toronto’s skyline may soon get a makeover if city council approves a new sign bylaw that would restrict and tax billboard advertising in the city.

City council will continue the debate on the bylaw today, after a series of motions delayed the vote that was scheduled for Tuesday evening.

The sign bylaw is the culmination of a seven year effort by various councillors and advocacy groups to regulate billboards in Toronto.

The new bylaw also includes a new billboard tax that would raise $10.4 million for beautification of the city.

Opponents argued the tax rate was unfair to the advertising industry and questioned how the funds would be used.

“What’s important is the establishment of a tax that doesn’t injure the industry,” said Coun.  Norm Kelly (Ward 40 Scarborough-Agincourt), who presented a motion to reduce the tax to $6.1 million.

But critics argued the amendment would lead to an explosion of billboards in the city.

“You’re advocating lit-up, bigger signs…[that would] double the size of the industry and cut the tax in half,” Coun. Adam Vaughan (Trinity-Spadina) said.

Kelly also advocated for more electronic signs, evoking an image of a “illuminated” Toronto full of blinking billboards.

“We live in an electronic age…we have become a twenty-four hour society,” he told council, defending the proposal..

His comments provoked derisive laughter from some public space advocates who were gathered at the top of the chamber to watch the debate.

Speaker Sandra Bussin (Beaches-East York) issued a warning, reminding the public they were not allowed to express approval or disapproval of a councillor’s remarks.

Speaking outside of council chambers, Vaughan said he thinks the advertising industry is purposely underreporting its revenue to avoid paying more taxes.

“There wouldn’t be this anger from the billboard industry if they obeyed the rules… And as far as I’m concerned they have no credibility,” Vaughan charged.

Industry lobbyists have also offered councillors money to change the sign permit rules, according to Vaughan.

“I’ve been offered and I’ve reported it to the Integrity Commissioner. But some of the most reputable companies in the city offer councillors donations to charities of their choice in exchange for approvals on variances…and that’s one more reason I don’t trust the billboard industry in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Rami Tabello, founder of the watchdog group, said he supported the tax plan as recommended by the committee.

“Right now there’s a motion in place to cut the tax in half. So we’d like the original tax to be adopted. We think that’d be fair,” he said in an interview.