ST. PETERSBURG — They weren't exactly a mob, but they were mad.
About 20 people came before the City Council on Thursday, upset over the city's plan to allow digital billboards along Interstate 275 and its feeder streets.
Their impassioned pleas were prepared, painting St. Petersburg as the front line of a national debate over digital billboards. They brought videos to show how distracting the signs can be. Several wore glasses decked out with flashing lights to make a point about visual clutter.
"You can turn off a radio and cell phone. You can't turn off this 24-hour, in-your-face, grab-your-attention TV on a stick," said David Hoover, president of the Riviera Bay Civic Association. "Please don't cheapen and destroy the feel of our great city by allowing these weapons of mass distraction."
The plan would allow a company to erect a digital board after it removed 10 traditional billboard faces. The deal would outlaw moving or scrolling images on the boards and limit the length between display changes to 10 seconds — longer than in Tampa and Hillsborough County but far shorter than Pinellas County's current one-minute rule.
Detractors said the signs waste energy and cause accidents and suggested the city put the decision to voters in November.
"The core of this dispute revolves around a very basic issue — choose to maximize profits for Clear Channel or listen to what citizens want and need," said Rick Smith, head of the Florida Public Services Union.
Two people spoke in favor of the digital deal.
Chris Steinocher, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city should pass its own laws on digital billboards in the event that the state Legislature issues statewide digital billboard legislation in the future.
"We have the opportunity to capture a lot of visitors in our community to drive resources to our restaurants, to our special events," he said. "We have to be cautious of passing this and not allowing the state to dictate what our agreement will be."
After two hours of debate, the council voted 5-3 to allow the deal to move forward to a second public hearing on Aug. 18. (Council Chairman Jim Kennedy and members Steve Kornell and Karl Nurse voted against it.)
But some council members who voted to move it forward stressed that they didn't support the ordinance in its current form and called for revisions.
"It seems like we're providing a mechanism for the industry to make a lot of money, and we're getting nothing," said council member Bill Dudley.
Prompted by the public's complaints, they asked city administrators to look at inserting a "sunset clause" into agreements with billboard companies Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor so that the city could re-evaluate the deal at that point.
Mayor Bill Foster, who helped negotiate the deal after inheriting the issue from predecessor Rick Baker, said he's not confident the measure will pass.
"The industry sat there and heard what council wanted," he said. "If they don't address those issues, they know it's done."
Clear Channel officials said they were confident a deal could be worked out. While a sunset clause had proved "problematic" for Clear Channel in earlier discussions, the company will now take it into consideration, said Tom O'Neill, vice president of real estate and public relations.
"We certainly will take all comments and determine a path to see if this is still a viable business decision," he said.
The deal would allow Clear Channel to erect up to eight digital signs along the interstate after removing 80 traditional ones; CBS could erect one after removing 14 traditional faces.
The digital signs would have to be 500 feet from neighborhoods and historic properties, unless the historic property is separated from the sign by the interstate. They would have to be 2,500 feet apart and situated so that a driver could not read more than one digital sign at a time.