By: M.L. Stein City supervisors reject bid by French firm to install and maintain, free of charge, outdoor toilets in exchange for permission to erect kiosks on which to sell ad space sp.
THE ISSUE OF installing outdoor toilets would seem far removed from the newspaper business, but in San Francisco it has created a bitter controversy involving the the city's two dailies, the Board of Supervisors, a French firm and the Gannett Co. The French company, J.C. Decaux, is offering to install 27 toilets on downtown streets and maintain them at a cost of $130,000 a year for 20 years ? all free of charge. In return, it wants permission to erect 121 European-style kiosks around town and sell advertising space on them. Sixty-five of the 17-foot tall kiosks also would vend the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and 21 other newspapers. The vendors would also dispense free tokens for the toilets. The public ? particularly downtown merchants ? appear to be heavily in favor of the arrangement, citing San Francisco's growing army of homeless people who frequently urinate and defecate on streets and sidewalks. But the Board of Supervisors recently voted 7-4 to turn down the proposal. Some majority members cited aesthetic objections while others said they believed the city should hold out for a better deal. Supervisor Annemarie Conroy, a lawyer, labeled the contract "a lousy deal for San Francisco." The thrice-weekly San Francisco Independent reported that the kiosk plan has aroused objections from some neighborhood groups claiming that the San Francisco Newspaper Agency was being given special treatment in the proposed contract by being given control of the the kiosks. The agency handles the business side of the Chronicle and Examiner under a joint operating agreement. Meanwhile, a second vote on the Decaux proposition was scheduled and Supervisor Angela Alioto, who has led the fight for the agreement, predicted it will pass. She is backed by Mayor Frank Jordan. "But it doesn't make much difference," Alioto said. "If it loses again we're going to put it on the November ballot. Ninety percent of the people here want the toilets." One of the most vociferous opponents of the kiosk placement is the Gannett Outdoor Group, which sells ads for its 600 San Francisco bus shelters. The Gannett division is the largest outdoor advertising company in North America. Alioto said Gannett has mounted "the heaviest lobbying I've seen since I've been in office. They take $4 million a year from those shelters and don't give a penny back to the city." Don Davidson, president of Gannett Outdoor, was not available for comment and another Gannett representative did not respond to an E&P query. "Gannett is afraid of the ad diversion," said Steve Falk, senior vice president/advertising and circulation at the newspaper agency. He asserted that the toilets and kiosks would benefit San Francisco but noted that the Chronicle and Examiner already are sold out of downtown newsstands. Independent sellers, he said, are paid a fee and a commission on sales, a practice that would continue under the Decaux proposal. Other newspapers would make their own arrangements with the vendors, Falk added. "Decaux's kiosks would be more attractive than bus shelters," Falk commented. Examiner and Chronicle editorials put the case more strongly for the French connection. An Examiner editorial headed "Sewer Politics" declared: "Supervisors opposing Decaux cited a variety of concerns ? most vacuous, all soluble. Their no votes mean one thing: No street toilets . . . . You got problems? Work 'em out. We depend on you [supervisors] to get the job done. Otherwise, San Franciscans should feel free to question the supervisors' motives. Is the fix in? Whenever politicians go against the prevailing political winds, it's a pretty good bet their acts are unnatural." A Chronicle editorial, with the headline, "S.F.'s Board of Buffoonery," landed squarely on Gannett. In reference to the supervisors' no vote on the toilets, the piece stated: "Let's be clear. There was one, and only one, winner in Monday's shameful spectacle [vote]: The politically well-connected Gannett Transit Shelter Co. "The company enjoys a monopoly on street-level advertising in the city . . . and mounted a strenuous lobbying effort to keep out the competition. But there were plenty of losers: the people of San Francisco, who missed a chance to be rid of 'streets, doorways, and sidewalks of unwanted, unsightly and unsanitary waste,' as Mayor Jordan put it." The editorial named four of the seven supervisors who cast no votes, noting that they are up for re-election. Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders observed: "Only in San Francisco could officialdom torpedo a plan to make the city look cleaner and smell better at no cost to taxpayers . . . . The Seven Stooges were happy to accommodate Gannett's efforts."