Panhandling Ordinance OK’d for Introduction – March 10, 2010 (Updated, with corrections)
Chris Hoff & Kevin L. Hoover
CITY HALL – Last week, Arcata followed the example of cities like Ukiah, Santa Cruz and Salt Lake City by introducing for approval an ordinance outlawing aggressive panhandling.
In the four-to-one vote on Wednesday the City Council approved the ordinance, which prohibits any form of panhandling in specific areas, with a distance of 20 feet considered a buffer that would create a sort of comfort zone for citizens.
Ordinance No. 1399 prohibits all forms of panhandling in these areas:
• Within 20 feet of check-cashing businesses, ATMs and banks
• Within 20 feet of entances to stores, restaurants and bars unless the owner gives permission
• Inside buses or within 20 feet of a bus stop or shelter
• Within parking lots and structures and within 20 feet of their entrances
• On the L.K. Wood Boulevard to 17th Street pedestrian footbridge and within 20 feet to its entrance and exit
• Within 20 feet of a street intersection
- Ordinance No. 1399 prohibits all forms of panhandling in these areas:
- Within 20 feet of check-cashing businesses, ATMs and banks
- Within 20 feet of entrances to stores, restaurants and bars
- Inside buses or within 20 feet of a bus stop or shelter
- Within parking lots and structures and within 20 feet of their entrances
- On the L.K. Wood Boulevard to 17th Street pedestrian footbridge and within 20 feet to its entrance and exit
- Within 20 feet of a street intersection
City Attorney Nancy Diamond said the Arcata ordinance had been modeled after similar laws in other cities which have been upheld by the courts as “content-neutral” – that is, they don’t abridge free speech.
Nonetheless, a number of citizens viewed the new ordinance as both unnecessary and unconstitutional, and likely to result in a court challenge and costly litigation for the City.
The ordinance is the result of complaints councilmembers said they have received from the public on the issue. Citizen Robin Hashem said the community had “the need to return mutual respect to our streets and make it a place once again where all community members feel comfortable to hang out, and meet each other on friendly terms, homeless or otherwise.”
Hashem’s support for the ordinance put her in the minority at Wednesday’s meeting, the public speaking period was dominated by those opposing it. But Councilmember Susan Ornelas, who has lately championed a “restore respect” campaign, said 95 percent of feedback she has gotten has been positive.
“A lot of people have thanked me,” she said.
Making the case for the ordinance, she said it is intended to address a growing problem on Arcata’s streets. Over the last 10 years, public behavior has become increasingly rude.
“It is an unfortunate thing to do,” she said of the new law. “But I feel like it had to be done.”
Ornelas said she understands concerns about the ordinance and the questions raised about it violating people’s rights. But the City has to balance the rights of individuals with the rights of the community, she said. She said that the City needs to think about the public’s right to walk on the street without fear.
“It’s about allowing people to feel like they own their town again,” she said.
The community is caring, she said, but there are limits to that, and those limits are being violated.
“I just want people to realize we are open and loving,” she said. “But we expect a level of diginity and contribution… We want to have an area that supports families and that everyone feels comfortable coming to.”
Ornelas thinks it is important to view this through the eyes of the more vulnerable members of the community.
“When you see it through a younger person, or older person’s eyes it is different,” she said. This difference became apparent to her after walking around with her nine-year-old grandson, and 80-year-old mother.
The ordinance will be enforced on a complaint-driven basis, which means officers are unlikely to contact people unless someone has asked them to. For Ornelas, this makes concerns about violations of people’s free speech less of an issue.
While the language of the ordinance not only affects panhandlers, but also wholesome groups like the Girl Scouts and Humboldt Community Breast Health Project, she was resigned to limiting their streetside solicitaions, saying that “sometimes you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Ornelas later said it wasn’t the best analogy she could have utilized.
“I’m kind of sorry I said that,” she explained. “It is a more complex issue than that.” A complex issue that involves what she calls a fine balance.
Opponents of the ordinance don’t think the City has found the right balance. Former Councilmember Dave Meserve is concerned the City has gone too far with the ordinance.
“Whenever you confront fear with more laws,” he said. “You have the chance of going to far.”
Meserve acknowledges there are people who are afraid to go to the Plaza because it makes them uncomfortable. Which is why he is less concerned about the part of the ordinance that focuses on aggressive panhandling, and more concerned about the prohibition of solicitation within 20 feet of an entrance to a business.
“There is a genuine concern with aggressive panhandling,” he said. “Because people are afraid to go to public spaces.”
He also understands parts of the ordinance prohibiting solicitation around ATMs, but suggested people shouldn’t fear panhandlers.
“Panhandlers are not more likely to rob you than anyone else,” he said. “There is no higher rate of violent crimes for the homeless than anyone else.”
He said only the crimes of homelessness have a higher rate in the homeless population. These are crimes associated with being homeless, like camping, loitering and dog ordinances.
However, he said this does more than just stop aggressive panhandling. He said, “It is putting the comfort of some people ahead of the needs of others.”
Meserve isn’t just concerned about the rights of homeless people. He thinks it is important to protect all speech that doesn’t harm others in the commons.
Local business owner Bruce LeBel shares Meserve’s concern that the ordinance is a violation of free speech. At Wednesday’s meeting he read an excerpt from a letter the ACLU sent to Salt Lake City regarding a similar ordinance.
“The First Amendment is meant to protect many messages and varieties of speech that may be difficult and uncomfortable for the public to confront,” he quoted. “It is important that all messages, with only the most reasonable of restrictions, are allowed to be shared in the public spaces of our city. Regulations enacted to shield citizens from the ugly and painful truth of poverty are particularly inappropriate in these hard economic times.”
In comments to the council submitted online, LeBel said the ordinance “will cost the City a six-figure sum to litigate and settle.”
Three other e-commenters supported the ordinance as protecting the rights of other citizens to enjoy the downtown without fear.
The most concise argument against the ordinance was presented by former Councilmember Paul Pitino. In his opinion – one shared by others – the City has enough laws on the books which, if enforced, could address the problem. He said widening narrow sidewalks downtown could be a step towards a solution.
“To me this feels punitive,” he said. “And I don’t think we need to do it.”
But Councilmember Mark Wheetley said that the ordinance is “Another tool in the toolbelt” for the City.
Attorney Diamond said that the ordinance’s language had withstood legal challenges. She noted that during the City’s consideration of cannabis laws, threats of litigation had also been made, but never materialized. Similar suggestions of impending have been made during consideration of water fluoridation, homelessness, various housing projects and innumerable other matters.
All but Councilmember Shane Brinton agreed. Brinton sharply questioned the propriety of the ordinance to the end, but was overruled in the 4–1 vote.
As the vote was taken, he said he had been sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
Updated to correct several errors.