The Mobile City Council’s public service committee today recommended some slight tweaks to an ordinance regulating handbills that will likely impact the Gulf Coast Life advertising circular, distributed by Alabama Media Group.
Despite working closely with the city’s legal staff, attorneys with the company are still talking very directly about the possibility of litigation over the ordinance regulating circulars in Mobile.
The issue with Gulf Coast Life was first brought to the forefront, after Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration called the unsolicited publication a major source of litter in the city and pollution in area waterways.
Among the most notable changes to the handbill ordinance was a provision making it unlawful to throw or deposit any commercial or noncommercial handbill in or upon any sidewalk, street or other public place within the city.
Handbills being distributed at unoccupied dwellings throughout the city was another issue tackled during Tuesday afternoon’s committee meeting. The original language of the proposed ordinance, which attorneys representing Alabama Media Group quickly express concern with, would have made it a finable offense to distribute handbills at any vacant property.
However, referencing a conversation with AMG Attorney Archie Reeves, City Attorney Jim Rossler said it could be difficult to tell if well-maintained homes are indeed vacated. Reeves also said there was no list of vacant properties available to his clients and that distributing ad circulars to abandoned properties is not something AMG wanted.
As for inhabited premises, the new ordinance changes would require handbills – specifically unsubscribed newspapers and other publications — be placed on the doorstep, or porch of the property instead of thrown onto the lawn or sidewalk near a residence.
Residents always have an option to post a “no handbills” sign on their property if they don’t want to receive such publications, and the ordinance still allows handbills to be given directly to an owner, occupant or other persons at the residence.
However, Rossler said those changes would not apply to subscribed publications as those are typically wanted by recipients and picked up instead of becoming litter.
“In my opinion, this ordinance does not regulate the content of any newspaper or any other kind of publication. It’s not regulating content, just the manner in which it can be delivered,” Rossler said. “It still maintains unfettered access to somebody’s premises, with the exception of being able to throw something in people’s yard they haven’t subscribed to.”
However, Reeves was quick to say “the ordinance, even as drafted, if enforced against Alabama Media Group would operate as a ban on constitutionally protected materials.
“That may end up being something that has to be solved in a different forum,” Reeves said. “What we want to do is something that furthers the process along and doesn’t start up a bunch of costly litigation for both my client and the city.”
Reeves said one of the biggest issues was the penalty provisions included in the amended ordinance. According to those provisions, a violation of the ordinance could come with a fine between $250 to $500 and result in imprisonment for no more than six months. However, remedial action to comply with the terms of the ordinance are offered, in lieu of a fine or jail time.
“We know you want to move this along, and once the train has left the station, it’s got to go where it’s going, but we would much rather work with you and come up with something that is workable that, doesn’t make us happy, but is something we can work with instead of having something passed that we know from day one is going to end up in litigation,” Reeves said.
Reeves, who was accompanied at the meeting by Executive Circulation Director at Advance Central Services Alabama Michael Womack, said his clients had made several good faith attempts to address problems with the “opt-out” feature of Gulf Coast Life, after several complaints were made at the committee’s meeting in February.
“We want to work with you and in our last meeting we heard you,” Womack said. “You raised several issues we’ve attempted to address.”
Womack said those steps included reducing the number of transfers needed to opt-out of receiving the publication and consolidating that process down to a single phone number.
Womack said 10 percent of the calls they’ve received from the newly established hotline were from people requesting to have Gulf Coast Life delivered to their house, but City Councilman Joel Daves said he wasn’t convinced adding, “this is not a made up problem.”
“We first met (about this) six months ago, and ever since that time I keep getting assurances that the opt-out process is working and it hasn’t worked in that entire period,” Daves said. “These arguments of, ‘let us have a little bit more time’ are not very persuasive when you’ve had six months to get it fixed.”
Casi Callaway fo Mobile Baykeeper was also at the meeting and she claimed three of her staff members have a tried to opt-out of delivery since the committee’s last meeting, but were still receiving the publication, as many as four weeks later.
Callaway said they would prefer to have an “opt-in” program giving residents, who want the publication access to it, but keeping it out of the yards of those who don’t.
Despite that never being on the table, Callaway said she was proud of the work the city had to done to better manage the current system.
“You all have the opportunity now to shut off these papers for people who say they don’t want them,” Councilman Fred Richardson said at the end of the meeting. “If you can stop that, there’ll be no need to come back and visit this, but if we continue to get complaints, the council is going to have to take more drastic actions that I don’t think will benefit you at all.”
The committee agreed to give Alabama Media Group 120 days to comply with the ordinance if it’s approved by the full council, which is expected to vote on the committee’s recommendation at it’s regular meeting next Tuesday.