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Action Sought as Sidewalks Overflow With News Racks

Confusing rules and 1st Amendment claims allow a proliferation.

August 25, 2003|Kathleen Flynn | Times Staff Writer

Zen Annino first noticed the multicolored metal boxes a few months ago on morning walks through her Studio City neighborhood. She counted 12 news racks outside Starbucks on the corner of Vantage Avenue and Ventura Boulevard, selling everything from the Wall Street Journal to the adult magazine Yank. Around the corner, six more.

In total, Annino and her neighbors counted 159 news racks on a two-block stretch of Ventura Boulevard. The boxes were of every shape and size, some clean, others filled with garbage and marked with graffiti. Only two were in compliance with a city code regulating the size, color and location of the boxes.

"I thought, 'When did this happen?' " Annino recalled. "Studio City is totally being abused. It absolutely downgrades our neighborhood. It's an eyesore."

Annino and her neighbors began organizing an effort to clamp down on news racks and joined a long-running debate over how many stands the city should allow, where they should be placed and how they should look.

For three years, community activists concerned that a proliferation of news racks was hurting the quality of life in their neighborhoods have gone up against publishing companies, which say they are protecting their 1st Amendment rights. The issue should come to a head in September, when the City Council considers new regulations for the industry.

At the heart of the problem, officials said, is the city's lack of enforcement of a law already on the books. The current law regulates how news racks should be maintained, and specifies that they must not block fire hydrants, driveways or sit too close to bus stops.

The law allows three racks on a corner, but because there is no way to determine which ones were there first, they have been allowed to proliferate. Today, officials estimate there are 25,000 news racks throughout the city.

In response to complaints, mainly from San Fernando Valley and Westside residents, city officials in 2000 launched a series of public hearings on the issue. They invited members of community groups and representatives from companies that own publications such as The Times, the Daily News and L.A. Weekly.

The groups soon realized that they have very different objectives -- about how many news racks should be on a corner, permit fees and even the color of the racks.

The Board of Public Works drafted a proposal for new regulations that largely satisfied publishers. But the city's chief legislative analyst suggested numerous changes to make the laws tougher on newspapers.

A City Council committee will decide next month whether to incorporate those changes into the board's plan, then send the proposal to the City Council. In the meantime, publishers and community activists continue to press their cases.

"I feel like the newspapers have negotiated in good faith for three years, talking with everybody in City Hall and the community who has had objections and complaints about the racks," said Sue Laris, editor and publisher of the L.A. Downtown News. "Now I feel like we've been led on by the [chief legislative analyst's] office the entire time."

Publishing companies are fighting the legislative analyst's suggested changes, which include higher fees and fewer news racks. Their representatives say the stricter laws would infringe on 1st Amendment rights to easily disseminate information."We too want to get abandoned and blighted and badly maintained news racks off the street -- they give the industry a bad name," said Alonzo Wickers, a lawyer representing the coalition of publishers. "But unfortunately, there is a lack of appreciation for the constitutional issues at stake."

Community members feel otherwise. "We're not saying that newspapers don't have a right to sell their papers, we are saying that we also have a right to clean up our cities," said Lorena Parker, a member of the Studio City Improvement Assn.

An issue of particular concern to publishers is the fee that would be charged for each news rack.

The Board of Public Works recommended a $10 permit fee for each stand. The chief legislative analyst responded with the suggestion that fees should pay for the cost of enforcing the new rules, which the agency estimated to be $1.2 million a year.

That $1.2 million, Laris said, divided among the 25,000 racks, would make the publishing companies pay up to $48 for each rack's annual permit fee. That could come out to about $13,000 a year for the Downtown News, which has about 275 racks in the city, Laris said.

"If we accepted those [numbers], it would put most of the small newspapers here out of business," Laris said. She said the $10 fee is the maximum price her paper could pay.

Lynne Ozawa of the chief legislative analyst's office cautioned that fees would not necessarily go that high. She said that the $1.2 million is just an estimate, and that city officials would also have to factor in revenue from fines against publications that violate the ordinance.

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