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St. Pete council votes for digital billboards

Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter rocked in her chair near the back of the darkened St. Petersburg City Council chambers and whispered to herself.

"Thank you, Jesus," said the community activist, quietly pumping her fists. "Thank you, Jesus."

Her response wasn't to a rousing speech or sermon or prayer that might typically elicit such fervor. It was to a slideshow of doomed billboards.

Thirty-two speakers and three hours later, nearing 11 p.m., the council voted 8-0 in favor of a resolution that will replace 83 static billboards with six digital billboards throughout the city.

Clear Channel, which made some late concessions to seal the agreement, will have the next half year to remove the existing structures. As part of the deal, the city will receive 15 percent of the revenue generated by the digital displays. It's unclear what that will equate to in real dollars.

The council's decision reverses one it made last year, when members rejected a similar deal after enduring significant pressure from critics who wanted all billboards banned from the city.

The council's consensus on Thursday seemed simple: The new arrangement, though not ideal, was better than the status quo.

"My preference would be no billboards," said council member Karl Nurse. "But getting two-thirds of them down, that's saying something."

The decision will clear the billboard-cluttered skylines along many of the city's most trafficked thoroughfares, including Fourth, 34th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets. The digital displays will change, at minimum, every 10 seconds, and their messages will be restricted in areas near schools.

They may also be used for emergency notifications, including those issued during major storms. City staff, which examined the potential changes for months, determined that the new digital systems would pose little distraction for drivers.

Thursday night's discussion, however, was contentious.

One woman called the digital signs "giant TVs with giant legs." Another said Clear Channel was a spider luring St. Petersburg — its fly — into a web. One man read aloud a lengthy letter in which he only referred to the mass media company as the "Big Bad Wolf." The council members, he said, were "piglets."

About a third of those who spoke opposed the resolution. Over and over, nearly all of them said, the city would be better off with no billboards at all.

"The high-tech legacy that I want to pass onto young people is not digital billboards," said St. Petersburg resident Laurie Macdonald. "That's not what our community is about to me."

Most who spoke in favor of the resolution acknowledged that they also wished the city was without the blight of any towering advertisements. But that, many said, would likely take decades to achieve.

J. Michael Gulley of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, addressed the officials, but said he was doing so as an invested resident, not as a member of the organization.

"Only a natural disaster can get rid of the billboards that are on the interstate right now," he said. "At some point, we have to deal with reality."

Most of the crowd stayed for the meeting's duration, though it became clear which way the decision would fall when the council members finally offered their opinions.

As the yeses came, one after another, a disjointed applause mixed with frowns across the room.

Lassiter, her hands in the air, praised the Lord.