The Message

Rack and Ruin

Despite all the technical advances in data retrieval that have come into common use over recent years, the primary venue for many periodicals remains the simple, time-tested news rack. No clicking, surfing or Googling is required. A reader need only walk up to a rack, lift its lid and grab a publication. That's old-school.

So, too, is power politics -- and according to John Hand of Colorado Free News, a division of Colorado Free University, that's precisely what's being played vis-à-vis the news-rack portion of Denver's municipal code.

The city's public-works department has been batting around possible revisions to the code for months, with an eye toward bringing a preliminary document to a city council committee on March 10. (The council must act soon, because the previous ordinance had a sunset provision that kicked in late last year.) Hand charges that the Denver Newspaper Agency, which oversees financial operations for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, and the Downtown Denver Partnership, an organization that views the proliferation of news racks as unsightly and bad for business, have had undue and improper influence on this procedure, leaving more modest operations on the outside looking in. As evidence, he points to what he calls a "secret meeting" on February 23 that only the DNA and the DDP knew about in advance. Had he not learned of this rendezvous from a source he declines to identify, he wouldn't have been able to attend. "I think the process has been very disingenuous and very flawed," he says.

John Hand suspects the big news operations have the 
city's ear regarding news racks.
Tony Gallagher
John Hand suspects the big news operations have the city's ear regarding news racks.

Public-works spokeswoman Patty Weiss takes umbrage at Hand's insinuations. "These were not secret meetings," she says. "This was not a meeting called by us that was presented to somebody and not anybody else. It was a meeting requested by the DNA to talk about the ordinance -- and anybody can request a meeting." She notes that Hand himself subsequently asked for a get-together, and one was arranged. To Denver City Attorney Cole Finegan, there's nothing wrong with such gatherings. "The open-meetings law does not apply to staff; it applies to elected officials," he says. "If you called and wanted to meet with us, you're welcome to."

Maybe so, but Hand still feels that he and other small publishers have been purposely excluded from participating in the revisions. When the original ordinance was assembled, he says, large-scale meetings featuring many publishers took place regularly -- but this time around, at least two proposed sessions were canceled, effectively squelching comments from everyone but the big boys. "I think it was reasonable for news-rack permit holders to know that a drafting effort was under way," Hand says. "If you have a permit, there should have been some process laid out where everyone was told, 'We're getting ready to renew the ordinance. Here's how you participate.' And it didn't happen."

That's not the DNA's fault, says Jim Nolan, who represents the agency. "All we've done is offer our opinion on the ordinance, and that's the extent of it.... We don't speak for other publications. They're free to have their own discussions with the city, just as we are."

The DNA has exercised its prerogative on numerous occasions. Public-works supervisor Jim Allen, who chaired the February 23 assignation, reveals that "there might have been three or four" meetings held at the behest of either the DNA or the DDP. Indeed, a DDP document provided by Hand cites another engagement on February 19. Rather than commenting, John Desmond, DDP's director of downtown environment, refers all questions to Weiss.

An e-mail invitation was sent to other rack-permit holders prior to the February 23 meeting, Allen says, but the notices didn't actually go out until after Hand started making a stink. (Hand maintains that he never received such an e-mail.) Allen emphasizes that "we did not make any changes in the ordinance" at the February 23 meeting. "We had conversations on issues." Still, suggestions from the DNA and the DDP could eventually find a place in future drafts. "There's certainly potential there," he concedes.

For Hand, who distributes the Washington Park Profile, Computer Edge magazine and catalogues for Arapahoe Community College and the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, among other publications, such insertions would almost certainly be bad news. He's particularly incensed by DNA efforts to give papers that publish more frequently, like the Post and the News, the first choice of spots in "newspaper condominiums" -- identical racks linked together to form a single, standardized unit. (A passage on this subject is crossed out in the February 23 draft.) Just as problematic, in Hand's view, are new proposals about fines to be levied against companies whose racks are out of compliance with the code, usually due to graffiti or vandalism. In the past, publishers who were informed of violations wouldn't be fined if they corrected the damage within a proscribed period. As the code is written now, firms would be charged $50 simply to be informed by e-mail that a rack has been damaged. "That's like blaming a bank for being robbed because it has money," Hand says. "You can effectively penalize a publisher so extensively through the city coming down on it that it could put the paper out of business."

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