First, Kill All the Newspapers . . .

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday January 14, 2010 - 09:26:00 AM

Can’t find a Planet downtown? Or even a Guardian, an Express or a Tribune? It’s your tax dollars at work. The city of Berkeley’s Code Enforcement office is in the process of removing what seem to be most of the “ped-mounts,” the stands that hold multiple newspaper distribution boxes, with no prior notice to the publications that have been using them. 

Why? Code Enforcement officer Gregory Daniel claims that they’re “hazardous.” (Note to cartoonist: please supply hilarious graphic representation of The Attack of the Killer Ped-Mounts). “If they’re hazardous we don’t have to tell anyone,” he told me on the phone on Tuesday.  

He referenced a city code section that lists conditions under which the city may summarily remove hazardous newsracks without prior notice to the owner. It says that the owner may be charged the costs of removal, as well as the cost of subsequent storage. 

A different code section provides for notifying owners that their proprietary newspaper boxes (aka “freestanding newsracks”) are unsightly or otherwise annoying to the city administration. For a number of years these notices were simply stuck on the offending boxes, with the hope that the distribution staff, most often contractors who work in the dark hours of the early morning, would see them and tell their management. But after a showdown meeting with publishers in March, Mr. Daniel and his colleague from the City Manager’s office, Christine Daniel (no relation), reluctantly agreed to notify newspaper publishers in writing by mail. By and large, that’s been happening. 

As far as the Planet’s concerned, when we get a letter saying that one of our freestanding boxes has been graffitied or broken or filled with trash, our remedy has been to remove it immediately to avoid the draconian fines that could be levied. Boxes that can easily be repainted or fixed might be returned to their spots, but some just bite the dust.  

But this recent offensive is different. Yet another code section discusses the possibility that the city might adopt an official design for “multi-unit newsracks,” and if and when that happened the freestanding boxes theoretically could be banned as undesirable. That never happened, but quite a few such ped-mounts were already in place downtown, owner unknown.  

So why has Gregory Daniel recently decided to pull them? Three are already gone, and nine or 10 more are in his sights. 

On Tuesday I asked both Daniels what’s happening. It seems that since no one in the city administration knew who owns these multi-unit racks, no one was notifed that they were a problem—if they really were—and no one gets a chance to fix them. I asked Christine Daniel if there had been any complaints about them, and she said that the Downtown Berkeley Association had complained about newsracks, both multi-unit and freestanding, but she wasn’t able come up with any other objectors.  

The assertion that perhaps 12 or 13 ped-mounts have suddenly become dangerous strains credibility. The city’s strategy seems to be to shoot first and ask questions later.  

After the fact, the Planet was notified by letter that our insert boxes are being held hostage because their mounts had been pulled. At least we think that’s what the letter meant, but it was so badly drafted that we’re not sure. Do we have to pay $75 a day to the city to store our insert boxes, which are now unusable because their holders are gone? What if we don’t want them back?  

There seems to be an appeal process, but who has standing to appeal if no one knows who owns ped-mounts? And now that scarce city funds have already been spent to pull them out (they’re embedded in the pavement), who’s going to pay to put them back if on appeal it’s decided that they weren’t a threat to public safety after all?  

Some readers may remember that a couple of months ago we announced that we wanted to shift away from free street distribution to locating newracks inside businesses. Sadly, some generous businesses that offered to host Planet racks were subjected to harrassment by the same uglies who have been trying to frighten our advertisers. We’re not sure we want to expose anyone else to that kind of treatment, so the plan is being reconsidered. 

In the meantime, we must ask once again if the Downtown Berkeley Association or the city of Berkeley place any value on the availability of news for citizens. In particular, we’d like to ask John Caner, the new director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, if getting newsracks out of downtown is really the current policy of his organization. If it is, the DBA must face the possibility that Berkeleyans who enjoy having something to read while they enjoy their morning cappuccino before shopping might decide to take their business elsewhere, to a location where newspapers are still easy to find. 

As for the city government, the hostility to the press of some Berkeley City Council members is well known. The mayor is infamous for stealing a paper that endorsed his opponent, and District 8 Councilmember Gordon Wozniak has several times added his signature to denunciations of the Planet’s open opinion policy. Councilmembers Worthington and Arreguin, on the other hand, are staunch defenders of a free press, and both have offered make inquiries about this latest annoyance. But others vacillate, and policy ends up being made by the staff instead of by the elected decisionmakers. 

And while the DBA and the city government crusade against killer newsracks, Downtown Berkeley continues its downhill slide. Anna’s Jazz Island is no more, after owner Anna DeLeon battled with absentee landlords and do-nothing city enforcement officials to keep rowdy private parties—some of which turned into quasi-riots—out of her leased quarters in the Gaia building on Allston Way. The latest owner made an offer to buy out her lease that she couldn’t refuse, and the club’s now history.  

The pleasant Downtown Restaurant (for a while another jazz venue) is gone, Cody’s came and went, and now Berkeley is losing what Express readers dubbed “the best jazz club that isn’t Yoshi’s.” Empty storefronts are everywhere. What a shame—for a while it looked like Downtown Berkeley could become a hip destination. There are some promising new ventures, but unless the city gets its priorities straight and uses its resources to tackle real problems instead of easy defenseless targets, they’ll face the same challenges as previous ones.