Free publication delivery leads council to consider restrictions

The San Francisco Examiner's practice of providing free home delivery of its Thursday and Sunday Peninsula editions has aroused the ire of some San Carlos residents, who say they don't want the paper but have been unable to stop delivery.

To address these complaints, the San Carlos City Council is considering an ordinance that would create a city-administered opt-out list similar to the national do-not-mail registry run by the Direct Marketing Association. Under the ordinance, businesses that regularly distribute free, unsolicited publications could face fines if they failed to stop delivery to addresses on the opt-out list.

In a February 20 op-ed in the San Mateo Daily Journal, San Carlos Vice Mayor Cameron Johnson claimed the newspaper's failure to honor cancellation requests has been a problem for years, and he said he had personally been unable to stop delivery to his home.

Johnson told The San Francisco Examiner last week that the phone number listed in the paper for circulation matters connected him to a voicemail unrelated to distribution, and he said the paper's website form for stopping deliveries did not work when he tried it.

The vice mayor's experience might come as a surprise to Aaron Barbero, vice president of operations for the San Francisco Media Co., which publishes The Examiner. In his three months with the company, Barbero said he has received seven requests to begin home delivery in San Carlos and four to stop delivery. All requests were fulfilled, and he has not heard any complaints from those customers.

Johnson also claimed the unsolicited newspapers can wind up in the city's storm drain system, which is especially problematic because the copies are sometimes delivered in plastic bags, which could end up in the ocean.

Another concern, Johnson said, was that newspapers could pile up in front of residents' homes while they're on vacation, and thus attract the attention of potential burglars.

“You can call the Post Office and have your mail held,” Johnson noted, “but if you can't stop your newspaper delivery, you've got people coming by twice a week to let the neighborhood know you're not home.”

The Examiner's twice-weekly home delivery in San Carlos totals about 7,000 copies.

The proposed ordinance was considered by the City Council in February, but according to Councilman Mark Olbert, the legislation was sent back to city staff for some “fine tuning” to ensure that it wouldn't infringe upon the free speech rights of political campaigners, religious groups, nonprofits or other entities that might infrequently leave printed materials in residents' driveways.

The council voted on the ordinance May 11, but Councilman Matt Grocott was absent and the vote resulted in a tie, with Olbert and Johnson supporting the measure and Mayor Ron Collins and Councilman Bob Grassilli voting against it. Johnson said the council will vote on the ordinance again, either next month or in July.

Collins said he did not object on principle to the measure, but felt it was important for all council members to be present if the ordinance was going to be adopted. The mayor added that he also wanted to be sure protections for publishers of annual publications, such as the Yellow Pages, were strong enough that there would be no question they were exempt from the proposed law.

“This is an ordinance that I believe we need to get right,” Collins said.

Barbero said his organization is committed to honoring the wishes of San Carlos residents, but he has some concerns about the proposed ordinance.

“We strive to serve our readers in the best way possible, whether that means promptly starting or stopping our free home-delivery service,” Barbero said.

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