The Mobile City Council on Tuesday again delayed until next week a vote on an ordinance that would regulate the distribution of circulars and other handbills, one that would be aimed in large part at changing the way the Press-Register delivers thousands of unsolicited advertising circulars across the city.
Councilman Joel Daves asked for the holdover on the ordinance vote to allow more time to work with attorneys for Advance Publications, the Press-Register’s parent company, to find a balance that would prevent litigation.
The ordinance, as written, would require distributors of advertising circulars to place the handbills on front porches or doorknobs of occupied residences. Attorneys for the parent company of Al.com and The Press-Register have threatened litigation over the ordinance, saying it infringes upon the newspaper’s First Amendment rights in attempting to regulate the distribution of its Gulf Coast Life product.
Daves said there’s an attempt underway to strike a balance, which could appease both sides.
“We’re trying to come to an agreement that would avoid litigation,” Daves said following a pre-conference meeting. “If we get involved in litigation, even if we win, it’s expensive and if we lose the city will have to pay attorneys fees, which could be as much as six figures.”
Daves did not get into specifics about what in the ordinance would be tweaked, but did say it involved changes to a section of the law referring to occupied residences.
Similar issues have been in litigation all over the country and Daves said the Supreme Court has yet to opine on it.
“There are no clear guidelines on how far a city can go to regulate it,” he said. “We want to be able to exercise control over the items but, if possible, avoid litigation.”
Because of the proposed changes to the ordinance, councilors had a brief discussion about whether the current law should be tabled and a new one introduced next week. Councilman Fred Richardson, chairman of the council’s Public Services Committee, said if a new ordinance is introduced it would have to go before the committee again. The council decided to only hold over the vote, meaning a second committee meeting won’t be necessary.
Councilman John Williams said the issue came up during a community meeting he held in District 4 recently. He said a group of residents are planning to call the advertisers in local circulars and complain to them about the issue.
“All of (the residents) are leaders in their own neighborhoods and they want to start a telephone campaign,” Williams said.
The council authorized Mayor Sandy Stimpson to accept a bevy of grants, including two that would help pay for sidewalks in three different districts.
The first of those is a $148,000 Transportation Alternatives Program grant from the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission for sidewalks along Dauphin Island Parkway, between Levene Road and Cedar Park Road. The grant has a $37,000 local match.
Debi Foster, the chairwoman of the Peninsula of Mobile, said the sidewalks will be constructed in a part of the area they’ve dubbed the “miracle mile” because of its proximity to schools, shopping and pharmacies. In addition, Foster said there are 11 churches on that one-mile stretch of DIP.
The sidewalks are the first step in a master plan for the entire area between Dog River and Mobile Bay, Foster said.
Councilman C.J. Small thanked Foster and other residents for helping to obtain the grant money for the project.
Another TAP grant approved by council would provide sidewalks along McGregor Avenue, between Old Shell Road and Dauphin Street. The $479,806 grant for areas of districts 5 and 7 — represented by Council President Gina Gregory and Daves, respectively — required a $95,961 matching grant, which was provided by the Village of Spring Hill, through fundraisers.
Resident Linda St. John said the project would help link tens of thousands of residents and is among “the most needed sidewalk areas in Spring Hill.” To raise the money for the match, she said the community hosted a sidewalk-a-thon, as well as sent mail outs and went door-to-door collecting money.
Gregory, who represents the Village of Spring Hill, said she and Daves have each promised a portion of their sales tax funds to make sure curbs and gutters are added to the aforementioned sidewalks.
Councilman Fred Richardson told the administration during the pre-conference meeting he’d like to see TAP grant awards for sidewalks dispersed into other districts in the city.
During the council meeting, Stimpson announced the city had been awarded a $386,000 grant from the Department of the Interior for improvements along a quarter-mile stretch of Three-Mile Creek in District 2.
“This award has historical significance,” Stimpson said. “Three-Mile Creek used to be the source of drinking water for the city. Now visualize it as a greenway that runs from the University of South Alabama to Dog River.”
Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents District 2, said the grant money would allow for the construction of a multi-use trail, which would include a fitness circuit, lighting, benches and educational signage.
The council also approved acceptance of four grant awards for the Mobile Police Department. Three of the awards, totaling $235,456 with no local match required, will be used as salary reimbursement for members of a countywide drug task force, Chief James Barber said.
A larger $2 million grant, with no match requirement, will pay for overtime and would allow the continued testing of “cold” rape kits, which are more than a year old, Barber said.
In other business
The council called for a public hearing on Tuesday, May 19 on the rezoning request for property at the corner of Old Shell Road and Long Street to make way for a hotel. The council also announced a meeting of the finance committee at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, followed by a public safety committee meeting at 3 p.m.