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Newspaper vendors restricted to Largo's medians

Devil Ray Charlie stood on the slender concrete median at the Largo Mall entrance on Ulmerton Road on Sunday morning with a stack of newspapers in his hands.

As he walked up and down the median near the left turn lane, a driver two lanes over blew the horn and waved a dollar bill out the window.

"I can't take care of you ma'am, sorry," said Devil Ray Charlie, who says he got the nickname because he purchased one of the first tickets to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays game.

A Largo police officer warned him earlier that morning that he would be breaking the law and subject to a $46 fine if he stepped into the street.

That's more than what he makes in a day hawking the Sunday edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

"I'm a disabled veteran and I get $230 a month for my disability," said Charlie, who declined to give his real name. "I need this $35 to $50 a week to survive."

Largo recently launched a crackdown on solicitors who enter roadways after receiving complaints from a resident who was disturbed by the St. Petersburg Times vendors Sunday mornings.

Largo officials also are working on an ordinance that would make the median off-limits to solicitors.

City leaders say their main concern is the safety of the hawkers.

"There's a state ordinance, county, Largo ordinance, you just can't do that," said Curtis Holmes, the Largo resident who lodged the complaints. "The Times knows this. I don't know why they are playing games. Why are they putting their contract employees in harm's way for 50 cents."

The Times has a contractor who handles street sales in Pinellas County. The company sells about 1,800 copies of the Sunday Times in Largo every week.

A Times official said the hawkers are made aware of local laws and are told not to step into the street.

"The contractor reminds them on a regular basis they are not supposed to go in the street," said Craig Holley, single copy manager for the Times. "The paper will be sold in Largo on Sundays. We always have to operate within the law and the best interest of the people."

Largo police Chief Lester Aradi said he understands both sides of the issue.

"You have to feel bad because some of these people are just trying to put food on the table," Aradi said.

"But at the same time, it has risen to a high level of concern for some in our community."

State law exempts nonprofit organizations, such as firefighters conducting their annual boot drive.

Largo isn't the only community taking a look at roadway solicitors. Last year, St. Petersburg abandoned an attempt to ban vendors from medians after hawkers told City Council members their livelihood depended on the weekly income, said John Wolfe, the city's attorney.

Tampa officials began studying the issue after a council member became concerned about the number of solicitors on the median on Bruce B. Down Boulevard.

"We are reviewing the case law because there is a question about whether the statutes are constitutional," said David L. Smith, Tampa's attorney.

Alison Steele, an attorney for the St. Petersburg Times, said localities need to be careful not to violate any freedom of speech infringements when trying to regulate newspaper hawkers. She said the laws must apply equally to everyone.

"They (Largo) are off on their own looking to establish a legal basis that people can't be on the median," Steele said. "If newspapers can't, then firefighters, high schoolers or anyone campaigning for office, if you look at this literally," Steele said. "What are they so afraid of? What in the world are people afraid of that they have to take the huge step of prohibiting speech?"

Kenneth Masters, who was selling St. Petersburg Times newspapers on Ulmerton Road on Sunday, said he's aware of the legal issues but he's concerned about surviving.

"It's about half my monthly income," said Masters, who also works part time at Subway.

"I don't draw any unemployment and this is pretty important to me. It helps me eat."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Newspaper vendors restricted to Largo's medians 06/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 1:31pm]

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