At a sometimes tense Feb. 2 meeting, representatives of more than a dozen local publications (including Mountain Xpress) met with city staff concerning possible restrictions on newspaper boxes in downtown Asheville.
The meeting, held at City Hall, was called by city staff and members of the Downtown Commission, who claimed they’d received many complaints, both orally and via email, about the boxes’ appearance, condition and clustering near such popular places as the Vance Monument.
City planner Alan Glines laid out three proposals. The first would involve a permitting process and placement restrictions (such as no more than four in a given spot); the second would add aesthetic requirements as well, including an approved "palette" of allowable colors. The third idea calls for common boxes provided by the city at specified locations.
"We're going from no regulation to something," noted Glines, adding, "We're trying to work out what that 'something' is."
None of the plans was well-received, however. Asheville Tribune Editor David Morgan said the city is "spending a lot of time on something that's not really a problem, from what I can see." Why can’t the city address the few problem cases individually instead of creating across-the-board rules, he wondered.
Urban News Publisher Johnnie Grant said it seems like "mixed signals" if businesses that might advertise in local papers are turning around and complaining to the city about the boxes.
"You're just going to have to trust us" that there really have been complaints, retorted Glines. Neighborhood Coordinator Marsha Stickford said she’d also received numerous complaints.
Frank Shipman, representing the Asheville Citizen-Times and USA Today, said better communication could solve many of the issues, warning that common racks could turn into a big expense for the city.
"If you're receiving complaints, let us know; let's see how that works," he suggested, praising staff for making a cordial request rather than a demand.
Shipman, Grant and other publishers wanted more specifics. "I'd like to be emailed these comments; I want to see them," said Grant. "Asheville is an urban center,” she continued. “When you come downtown, it is what it is. Part of that is newspaper racks: People want access to news."
"We have to know about problems to solve them," Shipman chimed in.
"I'll be honest with you: I delete them," Stickford replied. "I write them back and say the city doesn't regulate, that you need to communicate with the owner."
But the state's open-records law prohibits deleting email related to public business, N.C. Press Association attorney Amanda Martin reports.
"If the city's now saying that their desire to regulate news racks is based in part on feedback city officials have received from the public, then that demonstrates those emails were related to public business and therefore should have been maintained," she asserts.
A number of the publishers at the meeting also expressed concern that city permitting could favor certain publications over others.
Indeed, notes Martin, any regulation of newspaper boxes must be content-neutral, can't discriminate between publications, and usually must have some justification beyond purely aesthetic concerns.
"They have to leave open plenty of avenues for expression," she explains. "If what they're proposing is tantamount to a ban, then that's not going to fly. They can't say they'll favor paid subscription over unpaid, or news over commercial. It can't take into account in any way what the paper is.
"If they can show that something is more than just displeasing to the eye, but a hazard or something like that, then there's some latitude," she adds. "I don't think there have been any situations where government restrictions have been based purely on aesthetics and have survived scrutiny."
Xpress General Manager Andy Sutcliffe told the city that in his experience, a voluntary approach works best.
But Downtown Commission Vice Chair Michael McDonough said many commission members favor the most restrictive option (the city-provided common boxes), adding that if the problems aren't solved, "other forces may intervene." Clarifying that he didn't mean the remark as a threat, McDonough explained that in some areas, newspaper boxes have displaced buskers and vendors.
The city hasn’t yet made a formal proposal, and any such regulation would require City Council approval.
Last August, Buncombe County officials abruptly removed several newspaper boxes near the courthouse; after hearing from publishers, county officials returned the boxes.
“No emailed complaints”
In response to the city’s presentation, Xpress submitted an open-records request for all email complaints about newspaper racks Stickford received during the past year, asking that any deleted emails be retrieved.
And in a Feb. 7 email to Xpress, city spokesperson Dawa Hitch replied: "I've searched the archives and no emailed complaints were received by Ms. Stickford by email between Feb. 2, 2010 – Feb. 2, 2011 regarding newspaper boxes (with the exception of one email about graffiti which I've attached). When an employee deletes an email, it can be retrieved from the server the city uses to archive emails."
The one exception Hitch mentioned, a Jan. 31 email from APD Community Resource Officer Evan Coward, says: "I am aware of the issue of graffiti on paper boxes downtown and met with Jeff Tallman with Mountain Xpress this afternoon. We have a close working relationship and will be sharing as much information as possible in order to help reduce graffiti incidents and aid in charging."
Asked about the discrepancy later, Stickford said, “"I honestly didn't remember if I'd gotten emails." She added, "This current look [at restricting newspaper boxes] wasn't motivated by citizen complaints: This came out of the Downtown Commission."
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.