At a sometimes tense meeting this afternoon, representatives from local publications — including Xpress — met with city staff, who broached possible restrictions on newspaper boxes in downtown Asheville.
The meeting was called by city staff and members of the Downtown Commission, who claim they receive many complaints about the newspaper boxes, including aesthetics and conditions, as well as the number clustered in some spots, such as near the Vance Monument.
City planner Alan Glines laid out three alternative proposals for regulating the boxes in downtown. The first would involve requirements for how the boxes are placed (such as no more than four clustered in a single spot) and a permitting process; the second would add aesthetic requirements for the boxes, including an approved “palette” of colors they could use. The third would be city-run common boxes at certain locations.
“We’re going from no regulation to something,” Glines said. “We’re trying to work out what that ‘something’ is.”
Though opinions differed, none of the representatives of the publications were in favor of the plans. David Morgan, editor of the Asheville Tribune, felt the city’s “spending a lot of time on something that’s not really a problem from what I can see.” He asked if the city couldn’t solve the few problem cases individually instead of creating broader rules.
“I don’t think it’s a massive problem,” he added. “We’ve got a diverse city.”
Johnnie Grant, publisher of the Urban News, said that it seemed like a case of “mixed signals” that businesses who might advertise in the papers were supposedly turning around and complaining to the city about the boxes.
“You’re just going to have to trust us,” Glines said about the complaints. Neighborhood Coordinator Marsha Stickford also said she receives numerous complaints about the boxes.
Frank Shipman, representing the Asheville Citizen-Times and USA Today, said that better communication could solve many of the issues, but warned that common city racks could turn into a large expense for the city.
“If you’re receiving complaints, let us know, let’s see how that works,” he said, though he praised staff for a cordial request instead of a demand.
Shipman, Grant and other publishers asked for copies of some of the email complaints the city claimed to have received.
“I’d like to be emailed these comments; I want to see them,” Grant said. “Asheville is an urban center. 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 noted.
“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.”
Stickford’s deletion may have violated the state’s open-record law, N.C. Press Association attorney Amanda Martin tells Xpress. Open-records law in the state prohibits deleting email related to public business.
“If the city’s now saying that their desire to regulate newsracks 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 says.
Xpress has made an open-records requests for complaints about newspaper racks from the last year, asking that any deleted emails on the matter be retrieved.
A number of the publishers expressed a concern that city permitting could favor certain publications over others.
Indeed, according to Martin, any regulation of newspaper boxes must be content-neutral, can’t discriminate between publications and usually has to have some justification besides purely aesthetic grounds.
“They have to leave open plenty of avenues for expression,” Martin says. “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 that there have been any situations where government restrictions have been based purely on aesthetics and have survived scrutiny.”
Andy Sutcliffe, Xpress’ general manager, cautioned the city that in his experience, a voluntary approach worked best.
Downtown Commission Vice Chair Michael McDonough said that the much of commission was in favor of the most restrictive option. He told the newspaper representatives that if the problems weren’t solved, “other forces may intervene.” He said he didn’t mean the remark as a threat. He claimed that in some areas, newspaper boxes have pushed out buskers and vendors.
No formal proposal has yet emerged, and any regulation of the city’s newsboxes would require approval by Asheville City Council.
In August last year, Buncombe County officials removed several newspaper boxes near the courthouse; after hearing from publishers, county officials returned the boxes.
Photo by Bill Rhodes