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Getting Racked

A local magazine says the city's news-box rules kick publications where it hurts.

Making this situation worse in Cypser's view is what she sees as uneven enforcement of the ordinance. She repeats anecdotal accounts of news boxes owned by smaller publications being grabbed, but besmirched Post or News racks next to them receiving a pass. (Denver Newspaper Agency spokesman Jim Nolan dismisses accusations of favoritism, pointing out that the city has snatched seventeen Agency boxes so far this year.) And in her letter, Cypser tells of an incident involving a Go-Go box that was picked up in June 2002 because it wasn't labeled with the magazine's phone number; apparently a sticker with this information had fallen off. Cypser says Go-Go was never informed about the rack-napping and didn't learn until July 31 that the box had been disposed of four weeks earlier. To add insult to injury, Go-Go had to fork over a dollar to get a copy of the violation notice that should have been mailed to the firm but wasn't.

Rob Duncanson, an engineering supervisor with Public Works, isn't familiar with this situation, but he says that the city is doing its best to be fair and responsible in the way it supervises news racks. "We have to notify the vendors by certified mail, as well as by electronic mail, about any violation," he says. "We try to make sure that they get instant notice." But at the same time, he concedes that the job of policing news boxes is an enormous one, given all that Public Works has on its plate. The department divvies up approximately 20,000 permits per annum in 33 categories, with news racks accounting for a significant chunk of the total; the DNA alone has more than 2,000 boxes in Denver. Yet a single city inspector, Sherri Ivy, was put in charge of educating publishers about the new ordinance and overseeing enforcement.

Understaffing aside, Duncanson feels that "most major publications have been reasonably responsible" when it comes to following the ordinance, "although a lot of the smaller publications have found it hard to deal with the changes."

Some members of this last group are doing better than others. Mike Kirschbaum, publisher of the Denver Daily News, which circulates 8,500 papers five days a week downtown, has had a couple of boxes confiscated, but he doesn't think the ordinance is any more onerous than those passed in Vail and Breckenridge, which he had to comply with prior to moving here. But staying in the city's good graces is expensive. He's had to hire a forty-hour-a-week employee to keep track of his 400 boxes -- and for a publication that only has eight other full-timers, including him, that's a significant expense.

Mike Harmon, president of Jeffco Publishing, which puts out the Sentinel and Transcript newspapers circulated in most metro-area suburbs, isn't worried about costs like these sinking his operation, but he does fear the chilling effect that the proliferation of ordinances like Denver's may have on the flow of information. "No matter how you slice it, they're going to limit access to certain publications," he says. "They're designed to get rid of those supposedly annoying free publications all over the area -- and once you decide who gets into this limited group you've set up, somebody's access is denied."

Maybe so -- but in recent months, several area communities have floated news-rack ordinances anyway, including Boulder; that measure remains in limbo, and Boulder Weekly publisher Stewart Sallo, who was previously up in arms about it ("April Fools," April 11), couldn't be bothered to return a call on the topic. When city councils in Golden and Wheat Ridge debated ordinances of their own, Harmon spoke out against both, but his arguments didn't convince the officials. The ordinances passed by large margins, with enforcement slated to begin soon.

Harmon says he was able to get some changes made in the Wheat Ridge version, which is closely modeled on Denver's blueprint. When an early draft gave first priority to boxes of publications that come out at least five days a week, Harmon reminded the council that this directive would discriminate against Wheat Ridge's hometown weekly, leading to the provision's being dropped. And after it looked as if the new rules would make as many as half his news racks illegal, he negotiated a more reasonable solution -- an option not available to smaller, less influential publications. But he continues to see the ordinance as more restrictive than necessary.

"This absolutely is a First Amendment issue," he says. "And it's more than just a case of free speech. It's going to damage local businesses."

John Desmond, director of downtown environment for the Downtown Denver Partnership, which has pushed for years to get a news-rack ordinance, couldn't disagree more. Although he thinks the Denver law could use some minor tweaks, he otherwise considers it to be a tremendous success, and he says the feedback he's received suggests that he's not alone. "It's been extremely popular with the downtown community, and everyone I've talked to is wholeheartedly in favor of it," he says. This support is important, because the ordinance has a sunset provision that will render it null and void in late 2003 unless it's extended.

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