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Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor   
May 2012

A petition to combat litter in the village may be sending the wrong message

Pix_2_for_Gaspar_5-12A few weeks ago, I heard there was a petition circulating through our village designed to combat our litter problem. Fantastic, I thought. Finally someone was doing something about the fact that, for a small, residential community like ours, there’s an awful lot of litter -- paper and plastic, cans and bottles -- dotting the landscape.

I know because I pick up the evidence every day. Driving in and out of the village on NE 113th Street, I almost always see a plastic water bottle or Coke can, empty cigarette packs, or even beer bottles on the median. Usually I’ll stop the car, pick it up, and take it to the nearest trash receptacle.

The litter, as we all know, comes from a variety of sources. Drivers cutting through the village who’d rather chuck their garbage out their car window than wait till they get home. Recycling that blows out of our open containers on windy days. And, yes, some residents who could stand a little more civic pride.

Anyway, I was delighted to learn someone was going to do something about it. And when I heard the petition was being circulated by Chuck Ross, husband of Commissioner Roxanna Ross and coordinator of Biscayne Park’s Crime Watch program, and Dr. Fred Jonas, a member of the village foundation, I thought, “Well, this is bound to be good.”

Maybe Mr. Ross, building on the Crime Watch concept, was thinking of creating a Litter Watch, in which residents would be responsible for patrolling their streets for errant garbage. Or perhaps Dr. Jonas had an idea for how the foundation might be able to contribute to a cleaner Biscayne Park. My hopes were high.

And then I saw the petition. Addressed to the “Elected Officials and Village Manager of Biscayne Park,” it made only one demand, had only one idea for eliminating litter in Biscayne Park -- stopping the “unsolicited distribution” of this publication.

The petition cited concerns that the “blue log,” the nickname they’ve given to the BT, remains in some yards for far too long, creating an aesthetic nuisance and, worse, signaling to potential thieves that a home is abandoned or inhabited by elderly or otherwise infirm residents (i.e., easy targets).

Now, I know what some residents and regular readers of this column might be thinking. Yes, it’s true that Dr. Jonas is the most outspoken critic of this column, making it known he considers it biased in the extreme, usually against opinions he holds. And yes, it’s true that Mr. Ross is no fan of it, either, and that his wife, Commissioner Ross, has complained about it on more than one occasion. And it’s also true that, given the scope of the village’s litter problem, the BT would seem a rather odd place to begin -- and end -- the fight against stray trash.

For all those reasons, a lot of you might be inclined to jump to the conclusion that the petition isn’t really about litter at all. It’s about banning the distribution of a publication that some residents view as an irritant; a handful of people trying to tell the rest of us what we should read. And you’re going to say that’s censorship.

And you’d be right -- if Mr. Ross and Dr. Jonas had come out and said that’s what they were doing. But they haven’t, so there’s no reason to believe they’re motivated by anything other than a heartfelt desire to beautify Biscayne Park. To speculate otherwise would be unfair to them.

So let me just say this: I don’t think this is an attempt to censor the BT. I don’t think Mr. Ross and Dr. Jonas are trying to manufacture a movement to ban the BT from the village just because they don’t like positions this column occasionally takes. That would be small-minded, mean-spirited, and authoritarian. It would, in fact, be censorship. And I don’t think that’s what they’re interested in promoting. Nope.

I take them at their word when they say they’re concerned only about litter and public safety. The problem, as I’ve suggested, is it will appear to a great many people, both in Biscayne Park and beyond, as censorship.

That’s what happened in Chicago in 2007, when that city, also citing concerns about litter, passed an ordinance banning the door-to-door distribution of flyers, restaurant menus -- and free community newspapers. There was a groundswell of opposition from residents, free-speech advocates, and civic groups that forced the city council to exempt community newspapers from the ordinance. Or, as Ron Roenigk, the publisher of Inside Publications, one of the newspaper companies affected by the ordinance, told me recently: “The politicians found out that people like their neighborhood paper more than they like their politicians.”

I suspect something like that would happen if the village tried to ban distribution of the BT. I’ve been to parties at BT publisher Jim Mullin’s house. You can’t throw a long-stem wine glass without hitting a dozen Miami Herald staffers, various Pulitzer Prize winners, and assorted ACLU types and First Amendment lawyers. Let me tell you, those people are fanatics when it comes to fighting censorship.

They don’t live in Biscayne Park, and they don’t understand our litter issue like we do. They would assume the worst. Some of them wouldn’t rest until Biscayne Park became known around South Florida as “The Village of Book Burners.” Try putting that on letterhead.

Another drawback: If it came to a court battle, some legal-eagle friends would no doubt help Mr. Mullin fight the ordinance, possibly free of charge (while the village would have to pay for its legal services). Why not? The courts historically have taken the right of people to distribute and receive literature pretty seriously.

Look, I’m not trying to start trouble here. I’m trying to avoid it. To be sure, the efforts of Mr. Ross and Dr. Jonas are to be commended. There is way too much litter in Biscayne Park. It sends the wrong message about our community. Unfortunately, their petition may be doing the same -- while not actually eliminating litter.

To help ease matters, Mr. Mullin tells me he’ll instruct his distributor to pick up any copies of the BT that remain unclaimed 48 hours after delivery, so they don’t sit outside empty houses all month. That’s a start.

Personally, I like the idea of a broader “Keep Biscayne Park Beautiful” campaign, asking residents to be more thoughtful when it comes to disposing of their trash, picking up loose litter -- and bringing in the BT from their front lawns.

That’s something we can all get behind. Sign us up, fellas!


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