Ad agency sues Schmoke over failed billboard pact Mayor lacked power to negotiate, suit says

September 06, 1991|By Brian Sullam

Boisclair Advertising Inc. sued Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday for $3 million over what the company contends are broken promises in its nearly 2-year-old battle with the city government over 1,200 company-owned billboards in Baltimore.

The suit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court alleges the mayor misrepresented his authority when he signed an 1989 agreement calling for the company to reduce the number of billboards in predominantly black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore and to cut back the amount of tobacco and alcohol advertising they carried.

The suit is against Mr. Schmoke personally, and not against him in his capacity as mayor.

It alleges that Mr. Schmoke "acted with malice, ill will, negligence and improper motivation" when he "induced" Boisclair to enter into the agreement.

James A. Eatrides, president of Boisclair, said his company was forced to file the suit.

"If the city had dealt with us in good faith, we would not be doing this," he said. "This is not something we wanted to do, but we have to do it to protect our assets, our lenders and my partner."

Mr. Schmoke said yesterday that he could not comment on the suit until he had seen a copy of it.

However, a city attorney said he did not understand the basis for the suit because Mr. Schmoke was acting in his official capacity in signing the agreement, and the mayor is immune from personal suits for his official acts.

The dispute between the city and Boisclair goes back to the summer of 1989, when Mr. Eatrides and a partner, Jon L. Boisclair, bought about 1,300 billboards in Washington and Baltimore from 3M, a Fortune 500 company that was selling off its billboard business.

Virtually all of the billboards were the so-called "junior" boards, which measure 12 feet by 6 feet and are usually found on the sides of row houses in the city. The only products advertised on these boards were cigarettes and liquor.

About the time Mr. Eatrides and Mr. Boisclair bought these billboards, community leaders began agitating against the billboards. The leaders charged that the billboards used slick images to push products such as beer, liquor, cigarettes and rolling papers that were undermining the moral fiber of their communities.

In response to the community leaders, the city for the first time began enforcing the 1971 zoning code that called for the removal of all billboards in residential areas.

Mr. Eatrides approached the city with the idea of reducing the number of billboards from about 1,300 to 900 over a four-year period and reducing the amount of alcohol and tobacco advertising to about 20 percent of all the displays.

Mr. Schmoke agreed to the offer and said the city would suspend its enforcement of the 1971 zoning code.

In May 1990, in an apparent switch in tactics, Mr. Schmoke decided to sue Boisclair and force the company to immediately remove all of its billboards.

Boisclair in turn sued the city, saying that if the city required it to remove its billboards, the city would have to compensate the company.

A year ago, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ruled against Boisclair, saying that the agreement between the company and Mr. Schmoke was not a binding contract because it had not been approved by the city's Board of Estimates, a panel of five top elected and appointed officials that approves virtually all contracts involving the city. Judge Kaplan also ruled that the city could begin to enforce the 1971 zoning code and remove the illegal billboards.

Boisclair appealed Judge Kaplan's ruling, preventing the city from removing the billboards. Oral arguments are scheduled before the Court of Special Appeals next week, according to Mr. Eatrides.

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