If you had to list the worst problems afflicting downtown, you’d probably start with traffic and parking woes. You might then mention the armies of slacking teens who patrol Second Avenue in their tinted pickup trucks, the alarming number of vacant office spaces, or even how difficult it can be to access public transportation. What you probably won’t mention is, say, the number of newsracks on downtown street corners.
And yet it’s this last issue that could well polarize the Metro Council in an odd, ugly debate this summer. Last month, a backwater subcommittee of the Metro Council, largely manned by a cast of obscure, private citizens, recommended that the city replace rows of invidual newsracks with larger, uniform units. City Solutions, an out-of-town company, will likely supply the units.
Council member Phil Ponder, an ex-officio member of the subcommittee, plans to introduce legislation by mid-summer to implement the recommendation.
In other cities, legislation that transfers newspapers into one-size-fits-all racks has prompted divisive lawsuits and will likely do the same here in Nashville. Publishers like the Scene’s Bruce Dobie say that restricting the distribution of a newspaper is a grave violation of First Amendment rights.
They may have a point, but really their concern is grounded less on lofty constitutional principles than basic bottom-line concerns. Simply put, newspapers feel that they need the right to decide where to place newsracks so that they can maintain and improve circulation. If a new, hot nightclub opens on Third Avenue, they want to put a newsrack there the next daynot wait for a city official or outside distributor to process a bunch of forms.
Ponder tells the Scene that he’s crafting his ordinance based on similar legislation passed in Indianapolis. That city managed the rarefied feat of enacting the ordinance without being hauled into court. Indeed, Indianapolis’ legislation is believed to be so airtight that recently both Ponder and Jeff Themm, the director of the Central Business Improvement District and proponent of newsrack ordinances, visited the Midwestern city to solicit advice.
But if Indianapolis’ publishers haven’t taken the city to court, it’s not because the ordinance is lawsuit-proof. Mike Womack, the vice president of circulation and distribution for The Indianapolis Star, says his newspaper consented to the ordinance only to avoid a long and protracted battle.
”We have told both the city and City Solutions that we are not interested in expanding this beyond this very limited downtown area,“ Womack says. ”If they do attempt to consider it, we will make every effort to make certain that doesn’t happen. If that meant legal action, then we’d consider that as an option.“
Naturally, both sides have retained top-shelf lobbying help for the upcoming Council battle. Ace lobbyist Joe Hall of the Ingram Group, who has done an impressive job so far simply by making newsrack proliferation an issue, has been representing City Solutions, the private rack company. (In an amusing case of dual allegiances, the Ingram Group also represents the Tennessee Press Association.) The Nashville Publishers Co-op, which includes USA Today, The Tennesseean, and the Scene, will be represented by another lobbying heavyweight, Dave Cooley of McNeely, Pigott & Fox. It should be one hell of a fight.
The publishers, however, probably have the edge on this one even if they have collectively blundered by letting it get this far. Last month they did submit a voluntary plan on the eve of the subcommittee’s recommendation, and while it was rejected, it might be viewed later as the best alternative.
According to Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine, even though this particular subcommittee supports modular newsracks, the Council might be inclined to dismiss them altogether.
”This committee is not a Council committee, so their recommendation doesn’t carry the same kind of weight,“ says Steine. ”Personally, I’m a little dismayed that they didn’t go with a voluntary plan before going to a mandatory one.“
Good writing vs. bad
Tennessean political columnist Larry Daughtrey, one of the few people over at 1100 Broadway who’s not a blatant suck-up, penned a rather memorable line in his column last Sunday railing against the General Assembly. Pointing out the hypocrisy of lawmakers who tout the ”inviolate state constitution“ and the ”holiness of the rule of law,“ Daughtrey writes, ”Then watch the little fat men waddle down the street to huddle in private offices to scheme about how to tax you without making you mad.“
That’s good, vivid writing, and the Scene’s Bruce Dobie should take note. Publishing a rather pointless, overwrought editorial that seems to welcome Billy Graham from the perspective of an agnostic, Dobie purports to know what everyone at the newspaper thinks of the preacher. He writes, ”Posited in the coffee grinds of secular humanism, we weren’t inclined to like Mr. Graham at all.“
First of all, Dobie never asked me about the reverend so how does he know if I’m inclined to like him. Second, with apologies to Mr. Graham, what the hell are ”the coffee grinds of secular humanism?“
Matt Pulle can be reached at Mpulle@nashvillescene.com.