2nd Supe District: Who’s Behind Mysterious Pro-Sarmiento Ad On Santa Ana Auto Mall Billboard?

By:Matthew Cunningham

On Tuesday of this week (if not earlier), the Santa Ana Auto Mall digital billboard began running an ad promoting Mayor Vince Sarmiento, who is on the June 7 ballot for the hotly-contested 2nd Supervisor District election. It falls outside the billboard’s permitted uses, and stopped running soon after this writer began inquiring about its origin.

And no one in a position to know about it seems to want to talk about it.

The digital ad consisted of an over-sized version of Sarmiento’s official city portrait, “Mayor Vicente Sarmiento” in large type and “Office Hours, Wednesdays 1-3 p.m. at City Hall” in smaller type. There is no disclosure on the ad.

The ad displayed about every 60 seconds, rotating with ads promoting car deals and more occasional ads promoting 4th Street businesses impacted by street car construction – meaning it displayed about 1,400 times every 24 hours.

The billboard towers up adjacent to the stretch of the 55 Freeway between the I-5 and the I-405 -a stretch used approximately 260,000 motorists a day, according to the OCTA.

I received reports of the ad from multiple political observers, accompanied by criticism of the ad noting the sudden appearance of the ad two weeks before the primary election.

The saturation promotion of the mayor’s office hours seemed unusual, given that a review of Mayor Sarmiento’s social media turned up no posts advertising his office hours.

The use of taxpayer-funded communications to boost voter awareness of elected officials near election time – as has been reported on by the Voice of OC, for example – hence the suspicion of those reporting the ad.

An agreement between the Santa Ana Auto Mall and Santa Ana allows the allows the city to place a limited number of public service messages on the billboard, which receive prior approval by the City Manager.

Yesterday, I contacted Santa Ana to ask whether the ad was placed by the city as a “Public service message.”

Public Information Officer Paul Eakins replied that “The image to which you are referring was not requested or authorized by our office.”

“I have confirmed with the Auto Mall that this image was submitted independently and is not utilizing any of the City’s screen time on the billboard,” Eakins said in his e-mail.

I asked Eakin for the contact info of the person at the Auto Mall with whom he had spoken for our own follow up questions, but received no reply.

Shortly afterward, I called the Santa Ana Auto Mall association. The person who answered appeared to have no knowledge of the ad, but asked me to send a photo of the ad and our contact info, and promised to ascertain who placed it.

After explaining I was trying to determine who paid for the ad, the employee replied the Auto Mall was not allowed to sell ads for the billboard, confirming it was only for use by Auto Mall dealers and a limited number of city public service messages. Since the Sarmiento ad came under neither category, it would appear to fall outside the permitted uses of the digital billboard.

This morning, I received the following text from the association staffer:

The ad is off the sign. It was programmed in error. Thanks.”

I called to ask how it could be a “programming error.” The staffer suggested calling the firm that manages the actual ad placement for the digital billboard, Electra-Media, Inc. (EMI)

I called EMI next. After explaining the purpose of my call, the employee who answered said it was a matter for the marketing department. She took down my contact information and the reason for my inquiry and said she would pass it along to the marketing department.

After receiving no response by the afternoon, I called EMI again and asked for the marketing department.

“Can I ask the reason for your call,” was the response. After explaining the reason, the EMI employee asked for my contact information and the reason for my inquiry and promised to pass it along to the marketing department.

I pointed out I had already provided that and had received no answer, to which she replied by asking for my contact information with a promise to forward my request to the marketing department.

I also sent an e-mail to Mayor Vince Sarmiento about the ad, noting the city declaimed any responsibility and asking it her or any of his staff requested or directed the placement of the ad.

So far, no response.

To recap:

  • An ad promoting Mayor Vince Sarmiento began running on heavy rotation on the Santa Ana Auto Mall digital billboard two weeks before the election.
  • The ad falls outside the permitted uses of the digital billboard.
  • The city isn’t running it.
  • The Santa Ana Auto Mall Association tries to explain it away as a programming error – as if it were a typo.
  • The sales company the operates the billboard won’t respond to inquiries.

The ad stops running as soon questions start being asked, and nobody in a position to know where the ad came from wants to talk about it.

UPDATE (May 27): This morning, the Santa Ana Auto Mall staffer texted me to say “I truly don’t have more info except the sign company put it on in error. All I know is someone asked if [the Sarmiento ad] could be put up and a new employee didn’t know the vetting protocols and put it up.”

This staffer has been forthcoming and helpful and given me no reason to doubt what I’ve been told.

But someone with authority clearly requested the ad be placed – an ad that could be considered an unreported in-kind donation or independent expenditure.

This story is still developing.


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