AZUSA — As a candidate in the April election, Harry Stemrich wouldn't talk to the Azusa Herald. Now that he's on the City Council, he wants the city to stop doing business with the local paper.
At Monday's council meeting, the first following his election, Stemrich blasted the weekly newspaper, claiming that it was biased against him and his allies, Mayor Eugene Moses and Councilman Tony Naranjo. All three were elected despite the newspaper's endorsement of their opponents.
Stemrich asked the city staff to investigate the possibility of discontinuing all legal notices, advertising and other business with the Herald and moving the more than $15,000 in annual business to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
He said the suggestion had nothing to do with the endorsements and claimed that the Herald has a long history of mistakes, misleading information and slanting the news.
"The Azusa Herald has continuously gotten involved in the politics of the city," he said. "With the way they treated us in the last election, which reflects the way they treat us in every election, I don't want to spend any money on them in the future.
"The only way you can hurt them is to hit them in the pocketbook. Then they'll straighten up," Stemrich said.
The Herald's publisher, Ron Redfern, defended the paper's coverage and denied that it has tried to influence city politics.
"We have responsible reporting and give a perspective on Azusa based on the facts," he said. "I don't think it's been biased."
City Atty. Peter Thorson said the city may not be able to switch the legal notices to another newspaper, given the Herald's status as an "adjudicated" newspaper, recognized under state law as the official source for the community on impending city business.
Thorson said that since the Herald meets the legal criteria of being a general-circulation newspaper operating within the city, the city cannot legally justify moving the ads. The Herald is also cheaper than the Tribune, charging $3.98 per column inch for legal ads compared to the Tribune's $6.78.
The city has budgeted about $15,000 this year for legal advertisements--notices of public hearings and other city business--to appear in the Herald, according to City Clerk Adolph Solis.
The Herald is published by Highlander Publications Inc. of Industry, which produces 22 newspapers in the San Gabriel Valley and northern Orange County. The paper is delivered free to all households in Azusa and has been published continuously in the city for the past century.
The Tribune is based in West Covina and covers the east San Gabriel Valley, including Azusa. But the Tribune does not maintain an office in Azusa, Thorson said, which could bar it from adjudicated status there.
Both Moses and Naranjo, who have repeatedly complained about the Herald's coverage, supported Stemrich's move to pull the ads.
Naranjo said his personal attorney was investigating unspecified violations of the adjudication criteria that he said could provide the legal grounds to change newspapers.
"If we can find a way to pull all the legals, we'll do that," he said.
Stemrich said that even if the city cannot legally pull the ads, he will seek other means of depriving the paper of income from the city.
"If there's any way I can do it, I'm not going to give them 5 cents of city money," he said.
The newspaper also makes money on the city's annual Golden Days celebration in October by printing a tabloid guide to the event.
The Herald publishes the guide and returns a percentage of the profits to the Golden Days organizing committee, said Police Chief Lloyd Wood, who acts as an intermediary between the city and the separate citizens committee.
Traditionally, the city has taken out a full-page ad in the tabloid at a cost of about $750, Wood said. Stemrich said he would prefer that the Tribune publish the supplement, denying the Herald whatever profit it reaps from the ads it sells for the tabloid.
Redfern said the Herald makes little profit on the guide and publishes it more as a "good-will gesture."
Naranjo Court Case
In explaining his objections to the Herald, Stemrich cited the paper's coverage of a court case involving Naranjo, who pleaded guilty in March to impersonating a Covina police officer. Naranjo was sentenced to one year's probation and paid a $150 fine in connection with the 1986 incident.
Stemrich said the Herald's coverage, which included a preview of the trial and a story about the sentence one month before the election, was excessive and an attempt to prejudice the city's voters.
"It was strictly political, I don't care what they say," Stemrich said.
Naranjo concurred that he was treated unfairly.
"My arrest was 21 months old, and yet it seemed to surface right before the election," he said.
Redfern said the paper covered legitimate news throughout the campaign and did not try to influence events.
Without citing specifics, Moses blasted the newspaper for allegedly attempting to influence the mayor on a project the Herald favored.
"I was called into the Highlander office and intimidated," he said.
Redfern said he was not aware of any attempt to intimidate city officials. He said he did not know what the newspaper would do if the ads were pulled, but conceded that it would be a financial blow to the paper.
"We would like to maintain the legals because they are a good source of revenue and it's a good source of readership," Redfern said. "The Azusa Herald has been the paper of record for 100 years."
Regarding the paper's political muscle, Redfern pointed to the results of the April election, in which all the candidates the paper supported lost.
"We certainly don't have a base of political influence in the city, or our endorsements would have made a different outcome," he said.