The decision by four City Council members to vote against the adoption of an ordinance regulating news racks on Friday morning belied a council-wide agreement that something needs to be done about the issue of cluttered sidewalks. But what one council member called ignorance of due diligence and another called bad public policy ultimately kept them from saying “aye.”
First introduced more than a month ago by Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), the ordinance will be the first in Minneapolis to give the city some governance over news racks’ placement and appearance.
Based on policies in St. Paul, it will place restrictions on locations, regulating how many racks can stand side by side and how much distance must exist between clusters. News-rack owners will need to receive approval from the city for placements, and any news racks that don’t meet criteria risk being removed.
Key to the ordinance will be the addition of a fee. Remington has said he foresees rack owners being required to pay about $40 per year.
That’s where Friday’s argument came into play. An exact fee structure has yet to be determined, which concerned Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), who said that in the time he’s served on the City Council — 11 years so far — he has not approved moving forward with ordinances without understanding how regulation will be paid for.
“That’s been my position forever,” he said.
Ostrow is the chairman of the city’s Ways and Means Committee, which oversees many of the city’s financial decisions and saw the news-rack ordinance at its Dec. 8 meeting. While the ordinance arrived there after approval by both the Public Safety and Public Works committees — and after a lengthy public hearing — Ways and Means voted to postpone the issue because of the lack of a fee structure.
During Friday’s full council meeting, a Remington proposal booted the committee from the process. Such discharges are rare, but Remington said the issue is too important to delay it.
“The senior community is livid about this,” he said. “The disabled community is livid about this. Young mothers with children are livid about this.”
The council voted 7-6 to discharge.
“This is horrible public policy,” Ostrow said in response.
Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said he was equally befuddled, especially because the ordinance as presented won’t take effect until October.
“I think we’re not showing due diligence here,” Lilligren said. “… I don’t understand what the rush to pass this before the end of the year is.”
After discharging Ways and Means, the council voted 9-4 to approve the ordinance. Development of a fee structure now is expected to occur alongside development of the ordinance itself. City staff is expected to report back in March with a plan.
Friday’s arguments were in sharp contrast to what earlier appeared to be a shared annoyance by the entire council over the condition of news racks in the city. Mayor R.T. Rybak also has been strongly supportive of regulation, referring to the current conditions of news racks as “a disgrace.”
“We’re going to be very tough about this,” Rybak said at a Dec. 2 committee meeting, “because the situation has really gotten out of hand.”
For John Meegan, owner of Top Shelf in Lyn-Lake, that’s welcome news. He said the news-rack problem has been going strong for 20 years.
“Any progress against this problem would be most welcome,” he said.
Meegan said he went around the city and took pictures of the worst situations, some with 15 to 20 boxes on the sidewalks. He sent the pictures to council members, he said, to raise public awareness.
“It’s so pervasive that I’m afraid people don’t notice them anymore,” he said.
Tom Imberston, circulation manager at City Pages, said the ordinance was inevitable. He said there will be pluses and minuses: Even though it will cost money, it will help prevent boxes from getting abandoned.
“It’ll keep the boxes in check so people don’t go crazy,” Imberston said.