PEABODY – Representatives of the owners of a Newbury Street billboard exposed their throats to an angry City Council, the submissive behavior enough to avoid suspension or revocation of their special permit – for now.

Confusion about who actually owns the billboard behind the Holiday Inn came to light as city councilors discussed the company’s unauthorized switching the billboard from digital to static.

“I want to find out what they did, who owns it and what their plans are,” City Councilor Anne Manning-Martin said. “I want to know what they’re doing with that 60-foot hunk of junk affecting people’s quality of life in our city.”

Peabody City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski told the council that Lamar Advertising Company, which has been footing the bill for the billboard for the past two years, is not actually listed as the special permit holder.

“I agree with you, this is a mess,” Smerczynski said to the council. He explained that the company has paid six figures for it. Lamar Advertising pays $25,000 for digital and $15,000 for static billboards to the city.

In the eyes of the city, previous owner Total Outdoor still holds the special permit and it was never transferred to Lamar Advertising. Ultimately, the council did not make a decision on how to move forward with the company at its Thursday night meeting.

Councilors noticed unauthorized activity at 1 Rear Newbury St. in May. A cease-and-desist order was issued on May 19, with which the company complied.

Shortly after the cease and desist, Lamar Advertising emailed the building department requesting the special permit and a transfer in June.

“I find it hard to believe with their attorneys that they didn’t know, procedurally, how to do the work,” City Council President Joel Saslaw said.

“We’re the special permit granting authority. I get the impression that people are trying to take away our power, make us irrelevant by changing billboards with no permits,” Councilor Barry Sinewitz said, “The council works very hard and to have people sidestep the council… I resent that.”

Lamar’s attorney, John Keilty, and general manager, Michael Murphy responded to the City Council’s ire.

“It was wrong. I didn’t get the building permit and that was our fault,” Murphy said. He added changes to the billboard are in response to corporate instruction and he didn’t realize there were special permits for the location.

“There is too much digital in Peabody and its been an issue. There’s a lot of non-performing locations and its flooded from marketing and a business perspective, we needed to change it over but we did not do it the right way,” Murphy said.

According to Murphy, there are around 15 digital billboards within approximately a three-mile radius. The large company has more than 500 billboards. “This was just a massive hiccup on our part internally when we changed it over,” he said.

Their explanation eventually calmed the city councilors and they posted a recess on the hearing.

“You’re a huge company and we’re a little tiny board of councilors from Peabody 01960. We called you forward because this is our job. We care about our constituents,” Manning-Martin said. “If we got a billion-dollar corporation to come in and say ‘We were wrong,’ then we’re doing our jobs. That’s what tonight is all about. It’s not just about billboards, it’s about us being the special permit granting authority and doing right by our constituents.”

Mary Markos may be contacted at 978-338-2660 or mmarkos@salemnews.com