Editorial: Intent Behind New Ordinances Must be Clear, Serve Purpose
By Brandi Makuski
Unless specifically required by state or federal law, creating a new ordinance should be a last resort, as it’s always easier to create than to dismantle one.
The process requires thorough discussion and clear justification because, however you slice it, it’s going to be an imposition on somebody.
Ordinances create legal protections for citizens, city infrastructure, and the systems that support it, so it’s meaning must be definitive. Consider the city’s littering ordinance. Over the course of about 300 words, an array of circumstances outline the city’s definition of “littering” — even airplane crashes into bodies of water are included.
Ordinances are intentionally specific because legal ambiguity often leads to inconsistency, which nullifies the whole purpose of an ordinance and creates enforcement problems. They are often lengthy and filled with unfamiliar legal terminology — but what they should never be is arbitrary or vague.
On Oct. 9 a proposal came before city officials that fills no clear need, contains vague language and, so far, has undergone almost no scrutiny.
A scattering ordinance proposed by Ald. Tori Jennings would make it “unlawful to deliver or cause to be delivered any advertising matter, handbills, newspapers, or similar material to any premises where the owner or occupant has informed the distributor, publisher, or person making the deliveries that he or she does not desire to receive such materials”.
The ordinance was reportedly modeled after similar laws in Eau Claire and Wauwatosa. But Jennings provided no contextual information on the proposal, and whether or not it was working well in those other communities: something she typically includes when making proposals.
Despite a conversation lasting a little over seven minutes — and one that almost entirely avoided the actual language within the ordinance — the ordinance was unanimously passed at the committee level, but was later postponed by the full City Council on Oct. 16.
The discussion at the Public Protection Committee focused entirely on newspaper delivery; more specifically, the location of newspapers being delivered. City Attorney Andrew Beveridge referenced a delivery problem that occurred “not recently, but a couple of years ago” involving red-bagged newspapers delivered by a competitor to MMC, the parent company of the Stevens Point City Times.
That company no longer conducts blanket delivery, but the impact of their scattershot job remains to this day.
One other relevant example was mentioned during the committee discussion. Ald. Meleesa Johnson spoke generally about an elderly constituent damaging her snow-blower when a discarded newspaper became lodged in the machine.
It wasn’t known if either case referenced at committee involved newspapers being left on private property, or public sidewalks and rights-of-way. But only the placement of newspapers was discussed Monday — although no reference to said placement is found anywhere in the proposal.
If location was indeed the larger concern, this proposed ordinance should be tabled until the language reflects that topic.
If location is not a primary concern, then this proposal should be tabled until a committee conversation can be had on the actual language contained in the proposed ordinance.
At the Oct. 16 City Council meeting, Jennings successfully motioned for the proposal to be postponed. But at the committee meeting the week before, Jennings declined to speak on the motivations behind the proposal. To date, no input has been sought from the city’s ordinance control officer or the police dept. on the issue.
While the ordinance language identifies an array of printed materials, covering everything from candidate fliers to door hangers from a local pizza place, based on the public discussion it appears to target a sole entity: the Stevens Point City Times.
So let’s talk about it.
City Times staff often receives phone calls pertaining to delivery: of the estimated 1.2 million copies our carriers have delivered in recent years, we’ve received about half a dozen phone calls from residents who have asked us to stop delivery. When this happens, we notify our carriers (who are independent contractors) immediately.
By comparison, if someone did not receive their weekly print edition, they are quick to call and complain. We receive an average of 15 such calls monthly.
That’s .0005 percent of our print readership requesting delivery stoppage. To the best of our knowledge, it’s never been a problem.
And we’d be in a position to know. Monthly, our staff collectively engages with thousands of local residents regarding classified ads, new delivery requests, press releases or questions about our publication. Complaints have never had any trouble finding their way to the City Times office — including some from Jennings herself over the past year.
But Jennings never contacted the City Times, or its parent company, to discuss this issue. When asked for comment, Jennings replied via email:
“This ordinance was created in response to constituent complaints. I cannot say what each individual did, but one sent photos to make the point and many expressed their annoyance at unwanted advertising/paper deliveries. Since the Buyers Guide, as one example, contains no obvious contact details, residents do not know how to stop deliveries, so they continue tossing them in the recycle bin or leave them outside hoping someone notices they are not wanted.”
Two facts contradict Jennings’ explanation: 1) Contact information for the City Times/Buyers Guide is clearly visible in each printed edition, on our website and social media pages, via Google and just about any printed phone book, and 2) Any items left to pile up on resident’s private property, unwanted or otherwise, are, under city ordinance, that resident’s responsibility.
Instead of working with a local business about any genuine concerns, Jennings instead took to her aldermanic Facebook page, posting a photo clearly implicating the City Times as a poor steward in the business community, but no context was provided for the photo. Were all of the papers placed by our carriers in the same spot and in front of the same home? Or were these papers gathered from several locations and staged to create a damning image? No description of the photo was provided, yet it’s been used as evidence of culpability.
According to the city attorney, this ordinance doesn’t even really address newspaper delivery: all this does is create “a process” for residents to contact a publisher when they no longer want deliveries.
It’s up to the publisher, Beveridge said, to prove to the city what steps they’ve taken to ensure the unwanted delivery stops. If the publisher provides that proof, he said, any citation issued would be dismissed, making a waste of the city’s time over an issue that could have been easily corrected with a phone call.
In this specific instance, there are undoubtedly complainants who have not called us with concerns, but that isn’t the responsibility of a newspaper carrier, or of the publisher. Some people, like Mayor Mike Wiza, say they can “take it or leave it” when it comes to the City Times’ print edition.
“But you take my mom; she waits for it all week,” Wiza said. “It just depends on the person.”
The unanimous passage of this ordinance proposal at the committee level represents a knee-jerk reaction our council is fast-becoming famous for, as a need for it has not been supported with any facts, studies or other local statistics showing a pattern of problems — and with no other steps taken in an attempt to address it.
While the proposal has been postponed until Nov., it still has negative implications for the city. Should it become law under current circumstances, it sets a dangerous precedent in this city: one that allows for a lower standard for ordinance creation, one based on anecdotes and incomplete information, and one that forever removes the personal responsibility of a resident to simply pick up a phone and say, “No, thank you.”