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Council's review of Verizon Center billboard might reek

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

It's not easy to feel sorry for a billionaire sports business mogul, but my heart goes out to Ted Leonsis. The owner of the Verizon Center and the teams that play there -- the skating Capitals and the hard court Wizards -- wants to spiff up the outer facades of his arena with up to nine new electronic billboards. He is asking the D.C. city council to approve emergency legislation that would grant him -- and him alone -- the right to erect these signs, subject to D.C. review.

That explains why Leonsis found himself in the office of council member Yvette Alexander last Wednesday, watching the streaming video of the 12 remaining members put on an embarrassing display of disharmony. Leonsis saw the council elect a temporary chairman, to replace felon Kwame Brown. He saw Alexander weep at the carping that accompanied the vote.

Leonsis was in Alexander's office because she chairs the committee that is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on the "Verizon Center Graphics and Entertainment Act of 2012." He and his lawyers and lobbyists wanted to make sure Alexander was in line and on board.

Here's why I feel sorry for Leonsis: The city council is stewing in a foul brew of corruption, investigations into more malfeasance and charges of pay-to-play politics. One of the more obvious and oft-mentioned free perks that come the council's way are tickets to sporting events. The Verizon Center gives the council a suite from which to view sporting events and concerts for free. How can it look good, then, when Leonsis strolls the halls and asks the council to look favorably on a piece of legislation that will favor him alone?

Leonsis didn't make the rules. He didn't anticipate he would be asking for favorable treatment just as the council came up reeking of foul play.

Poor Ted.

His "ask" is not all that outlandish. He wants to be able to apply for nine new signs on the arena at Gallery Place and Chinatown. Some would be digital and stream video. Three city agencies would review the applications. The bill establishes a commission of locals to review the signs. Leonsis tried to introduce the special legislation in January, but the locals objected to the sound and size of the billboards. He met with them, killed the sound and reduced their size.

But the bill still has fatal flaws. Leonsis wants to rush it through so he can erect the new billboards by the fall, when his teams play. Meanwhile, the mayor's working group to rewrite regulations for signs citywide is about to finish its work. Transportation chief Terry Bellamy will testify against the Leonsis bill and advise the council to wait. Seventh Street, on the arena's west side, is a federal highway, believe it or not, and the feds will have to weigh in.

At least three of the electronic billboards will stream video. Do drivers on Seventh Street need more distractions?

Seems like a lose-lose to me: If the council pounds through the bill, it looks bought. If it declines to act, Leonsis loses.

Either way, I'm not sure Leonsis wins.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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