Complaints Prompt City to Revisit News Rack Rules

Staff Reporter

Placing a news rack on a Los Angeles sidewalk is easy. No permit is required and while there are some rules, they mostly go unenforced.

The result: Lines of battered and often broken news racks cluttering sidewalk corners all over the city.

Reacting to complaints from business owners and residents, the Los Angeles Department of Public Works is in the process of developing stricter rules for installing and maintaining racks. A series of public hearings is being held that will continue into the summer.

But it's not as easy as it sounds. City officials must tread lightly as First Amendment issues and court cases in other cities hover over any decisions. Any tightening of the rules is likely to be greeted with opposition from local publishers.

As a preemptive step, the department has enlisted local newspaper companies in helping craft the ordinance that they hope to send to the city council sometime after the summer.

"It was a small problem that was not of any concern to anybody that grew rapidly into a big problem," said Janice Wood, a Board of Public Works commissioner. "What we are trying to do now is find some middle ground between the concerns of residents and businesses and the concerns of the media."

Rules in effect

The city's current ordinance requires anyone who installs one or more news racks to notify the DPW of the location of each rack. No more than three racks may be placed directly adjacent to each other. Rules to keep them from obstructing the right of way include prohibiting the placement of racks within five feet of a fire hydrant or six feet from a bus bench.

News racks also must be maintained "in a neat and clean condition and be in good repair at all times."

But the rules aren't followed a dozen or more racks at a stretch is not uncommon and the penalties are minor. News racks not in compliance may be impounded, but there are no fines or other liabilities.

The Board of Public Works began considering changes to the ordinance two years ago, after residents and business owners complained about the growing number of news racks, many abandoned, in Hollywood, Westwood and Sherman Oaks.

"One of the important things to remember is the distribution of those publications has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a right that is protected by the First Amendment," said Nicki Ballinger, a staff attorney for the Newspaper Association of America.

"On the other side, some of the restrictions that are in city ordinances have been found to be constitutional," she added.

But attempts for tighter regulation have been met with problems in other cities.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors was set to vote this week on a tentative settlement with a group of publishers that could bring an end to a contentious, four-year legal battle.

In 1998, the city enacted an ordinance allowing for the creation of districts where newspapers must be distributed from pedestal-mounted news racks, with several cubicles, rather than from free-standing news racks. Several publishers filed a lawsuit alleging that the ordinance violated First Amendment rights.

If approved, the proposed settlement would allow for the creation of pedestal-mounted zones but also give publishers more say in where the news racks are placed and which newspapers may use them.

Critics contend that San Francisco might have avoided the legal brouhaha by working more closely with publishers in drafting the measure. L.A. is taking a different approach, according to Jim Rizzi, publisher of New Times, Los Angeles. (Rizzi is a member of the local media coalition and was involved in the San Francisco case as publisher of the SF Weekly.)

"One big difference is here we're trying to get out in front of the process a little bit more," he said. While the negotiations have been slowed by the change in administration, "the city does seem to be willing to work with us."

Both sides agree on the need for a permitting process, but the city has proposed seven different permitting and inspection fees. Publishers want to pay no more than an initial permitting fee and, perhaps, a smaller renewal fee.

Matching colors?

The publishers also are seeking to increase to six the number of news racks that can be directly adjacent to each other and relax other placement requirements. Meanwhile, the city is looking to gain more control over the appearance of news racks by proposing, for example, that they come in matching colors.

"The city has a much more restrictive proposal," said Alonzo Wickers, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine and counsel for the media coalition, which includes representatives from the Los Angeles Times, Daily News and other newspapers.

"We think it has constitutional problems," he said. "We also think it has enforcement problems."

Rizzi contended that simply enforcing the current ordinance would go a long way toward reducing concerns by removing abandoned and unattractive racks.

But reducing the number of racks and requiring them to have a uniform appearance would make an even greater difference, said Steven Sann, a member of the Safe and Scenic Committee of the Westwood Business Improvement District.

The BID's efforts to replace freestanding news racks with four-in-one modular racks were thwarted by free speech concerns, Sann said.

While city officials aren't obligated to work with the media on changing the news rack ordinance, not doing so could lead to problems, Ballinger said. "People have learned from past instances that it's a good idea for everyone to sit down and talk about it," she said.

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