LONG BEACH — About 15 years ago, bus benches sporting advertisements for mortuaries were the local rage. There were so many, in fact, that city officials decided to ban all ads on the public benches.
"We became known as the town of the newlywed and the nearly dead," said City Atty. John Calhoun.
To avoid reopening the gates to a flood of advertisements on benches and other public spots, the city's Planning Commission recently denied a General Telephone Co. request to place small ads next to public telephones. But GTE appealed this week to the City Council, where the idea received mixed reviews.
Two councilmen said they might side with GTE if the city gets a cut of the advertising money. GTE representatives said afterward that Long Beach is the first city to ask for a share of the advertising revenue.
"We'll be glad to work with them," GTE spokesman Jody E. Feerst said after the council meeting Tuesday.
The issue went back for further review to city legal and planning staff members, who told the council that there are several problems with GTE's request.
GTE would place up to four 3-by-3-inch advertisements next to each of the city's 4,000 pay telephones. They would be arranged in a 13-inch strip that callers could read while they use the telephone.
No Control of Content
If the city allows that advertising, the staff members said, it must also allow advertising in other public places, such as bus shelters and benches. Also, Calhoun said, the city could not regulate the advertising content. Although GTE representatives said the company would not accept advertisements from alcohol and tobacco firms, for example, that restriction would be voluntary only.
Overall, allowing phone-booth advertising would be "precedent setting" and "would be contrary to a longstanding policy of reducing locations for off-premise advertising," Planning Commission Chairman Nancy Latimer wrote in a report to the council.
Vice Mayor Warren Harwood agreed with the Planning Commission. He called the potential for a proliferation of advertising "very troublesome."
But Councilwoman Jan Hall noted that public phone booths--or bus benches--in a handful of zones are allowed to have advertising. Robert J. Paternoster, the city's planning and building director, said only a small number of public phones are in such zones. The rest are banned from carrying advertising, he said.
Dale B. Rycraft, GTE district manager, said the company began placing phone booth ads in other nearby cities last August. So far, 27 Southern California cities--including Bellflower, Artesia and Seal Beach--are using them.
The company would charge $5 per ad per month, for a potential revenue of $80,000 per month in Long Beach, Rycraft said.
Councilman Wallace Edgerton said he might support the proposal--despite the risk of "opening up Pandora's box" to other public advertising--if the city benefits financially. Councilman Clarence Smith agreed that it "might be worth the risk" if Long Beach gets a share of the new revenue.
GTE spokesmen said they will consider the council's request. They also offered to use one of the four ads in each booth for public service announcements.
The issue is expected to resurface in three months.