Friday, August 24, 2007

Of Fliers, Fines and the Limits of Patience

The New York Times
August 24, 2007

The last straw for Simcha Felder came months ago. Actually, it was more like the last scrap of paper. His mother had been given a $100 sanitation summons for some advertisement fliers that lay messily on the sidewalk in front of her house in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

You’ve all seen those kinds of fliers and their pesky first cousins: restaurant menus that are dropped on stoops or slipped under doors by delivery guys. Some people find the advertising useful. But for many New Yorkers — we bet most — it is a giant pain.

“I hate coming home to the stuff,” said Mr. Felder, who lives in Midwood, Brooklyn. “O.K., it’s a nuisance. But my mother, she’s in her late 80s. My father has Alzheimer’s. They have a corner building. They’re getting stuff thrown near the door. She can’t clean up every day. So she gets a sanitation summons for some of the stuff that fell out of the bag, that got wet, that’s on the sidewalk, that’s matted down, whatever.”

“For her to get a ticket is like a convicted felon,” he said. “That’s how she feels. Of course, I paid the ticket. But she was so upset about it.”

Fortunately for Ida Felder of Borough Park, she has a son who looks out for her. But her boy Simcha happens also to be a city councilman. He can do more than fight City Hall. He can try to change it.

In March, Mr. Felder introduced a bill that would make it unlawful to distribute “any unsolicited printed material” in houses or buildings that post notices that say, in effect: Go away. The councilman held a news conference at City Hall, where he threw a fistful of fliers on the front steps

It was, he acknowledged, a touch of silliness. “But that’s what I’m supposed to do to get attention,” he said.

He did indeed get attention. But his bill sat dormant. There was no reason for the City Council to act, not with a similar bill making its way through Albany, sponsored by two Queens lawmakers, State Senator Frank Padavan and Assemblyman Mark Weprin. Signed into law this week by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, it sets fines ranging from $250 to $1,000 for businesses that ignore signs telling them to take their fliers elsewhere.

But Mr. Felder said he would revive his bill if the Legislature failed to make changes in the law. Amendments are already being considered in Albany to deal with matters like what to do if some renters in an apartment building want the menus. Who exactly will enforce the law, and how, also needs to be spelled out.

One could question the usefulness of laws that arguably amount to feel-good measures that are hard to enforce. That said, however, the menu stranglers are trying to get hold of a nuisance that has bugged the daylights out of countless New Yorkers for years.

Don’t forget the security aspect, Mr. Felder said. “If you’re away for a week,” he said, “you come home to 10 copies of the stuff on the doorstep screaming: ‘Hi, I’m not home. Come and take whatever you want.’ ”

Safety aside, laws like this satisfy a certain Garboesque streak in New Yorkers. Sure, they accept the city’s hubbub, even embrace it. But there is also a part of them that just wants to be left alone:

Enough with panhandlers hounding them on the weary subway ride home. Enough with loud cellphone yakkers on the bus. Enough with phone solicitors interrupting dinner.

At least the phone intruders have been held in check by way of the do-not-call registry. As of June, holders of nearly nine million phone accounts had registered in New York State, according to the state’s Consumer Protection Board. That compares with 7.5 million a year ago and 5.5 million in 2005. What are all those people saying? Simply, just leave us alone.

The anti-flier law is the do-not-call list’s equivalent. As with that registry, politicians and charities are exempt from restrictions, our lawmakers having apparently decided that the average Joe may not want to be bothered by a cable company huckster but is somehow dying to hear from someone running for office.

Those exemptions make no sense to Mr. Felder. But even his bill would give charities a pass from a no-flier ban.

How’s that? What makes them a special case?

Things are different “when it comes to God,” the councilman said. With charities, “some of them are not his messengers, but some of them are. I don’t want to be on his bad side.”

When his own time comes, he said: “I don’t want to be asked about this. I have enough on my plate.”



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