Frustrated by the sight of unkempt and abandoned newspaper boxes, Mayor Thomas M. Menino has proposed sweeping new regulations and fees for their placement, a move that has some cash-strapped publishers complaining the mayor is limiting their ability to freely distribute newspapers on city streets.
Menino says the city has been receiving complaints that news boxes are sometimes filled with trash, that they impede access for wheelchairs, and that some are chained to street signs or placed insecurely.
"The problem is they get so dirty, and some of these companies don't even care," Menino said in an interview. "You find there's rubbish in them for weeks, and we've got to do something."
The proposed new rules would cap at 300 the number of boxes a publisher could place in the city and charge them $25 per box annually. The publishers would also have to pay a $300 fee annually to receive a certificate of compliance.
The City Council, which referred the proposal to a committee yesterday, would have to approve the ordinance.
"Capping the number of boxes at 300 places an undue hardship restraint on trade as well as [creates] a First Amendment issue," said Tracy Carracedo, marketing director for The Metro, a free tabloid. "It should be substantially higher than 300. The lifeblood of our distribution is through these racks. We rely on that each and every morning."
While city records show no publisher has more than 300 news boxes in the city, several are close to the proposed cap. The Employment News, a free job-listings publication, has 296; The Boston Globe has 294; and The Weekly Dig has 284. The other top publishers are Automart Trader Publishing, with 180 newsracks; The Boston Herald, with 176; and The Metro, with 141. The figures do not include boxes placed on private property or MBTA property.
"We have a small city," said Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Menino. "We only have so much room on the sidewalk for news boxes. We think 300 news boxes per publication is generous in order to cover the city."
A Globe executive called the cap troubling.
"They've set up other mechanisms to ensure that the quantity and quality of the boxes is standardized and the safety of the passersby is taken into account," said Susan Hunt Stevens, senior vice president for circulation and marketing, at the Globe. "If those criteria have been met - if they're safe, maintained, and safe from a terrorism standpoint - why cap them?
"We really understand why Boston wants to have standards for this," she said. "We just want to ensure that those standards are reasonable and do not inhibit the free dissemination of information to consumers."
Jim Dorgan - circulation director for Phoenix Media Communications Group, which distributes The Boston Phoenix and other publications - said the new fees are significant. He also called another restriction, which precludes a publisher from having two news boxes for the same publication within 150 feet of each other, "very restrictive."
"You don't want to have it be inconvenient for the commuter/reader," he said.
Menino aides said the cap, increased to 300 from an initial proposal of 100 after consultation with newspaper distributors, was intended to strike a balance between keeping the streets free of clutter and providing publishers with adequate locations to distribute papers.
It also was considered a reasonable number for workers with the city's Public Works Department to manage, the official said. The new rules place sole responsibility for monitoring enforcement in the Public Works Department.
The added responsibility comes after some Public Works employees were seen in investigations by the city and a watchdog agency performing little work on the job. A recent audit criticized the department for not having clear methods for keeping track of potholes and unemptied trash cans.
The department's chief, Dennis Royer, is currently serving a suspension for allowing an aide to telecommute from Venezuela.
But Joyce said the mayor is confident the department can handle the task.
"The mayor expects that department should and will keep our streets clean and free of all hazards to ensure proper pedestrian walkways," Joyce said. "That includes making sure newspaper vendors hold up their end of the bargain. This streamlines the process and makes it easier for public works to do their job."
Boston has faced challenges to restrictions on newsracks in the past. It has successfully defended itself against lawsuits backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association after banning news boxes in certain residential neighborhoods.
An ACLU official said the group would probably not take a position on the city's new proposals. The executive director of the trade group did not return phone calls.
Menino said he did not believe his proposal infringed on the publication's First Amendment right to disseminate information.
John C. Drake can be reached at email@example.com.