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Ordinance to ban aggressive panhandling moves forward

An aggressive panhandling ordinance moved forward on Monday after the Rochester City Council voted 5-2 to approve the draft ordinance and give it a first reading, after a night of mixed emotions from residents related to the need for such a law.

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Officer Jeff Stobbs speaks at the city-county Government Center in Rochester Monday about his experience with panhandlers.

An aggressive panhandling ordinance moved forward on Monday after the Rochester City Council voted 5-2 to approve the draft ordinance and give it a first reading, after a night of mixed emotions from residents related to the need for such a law.

The ordinance, drafted by City Attorney Terry Adkins, would ban panhandlers from intimidating people by repeatedly soliciting, touching or following people. It also would set up zones within 15 feet of ATMs, public restrooms and sidewalk cafes as areas where panhandling is prohibited, calling those "captive audience" settings. The ordinance would not restrict passive panhandling, such as putting up a sign or playing guitar for money unless it occurs within those captive audience zones.

Council members Michael Wojcik and Sandra Means voted against the ordinance. Means said she believed parts of the ordinance weren't necessary because they were covered by other laws, such as disorderly conduct or trespassing.

"I'm in favor of only part of it," Means said. "I think an education attempt should be made, not only to educate the people that are panhandling but also the people that are approached by panhandlers."

Wojcik cited an example that he's brought up a few times — if a panhandler approaches someone at a sidewalk cafe, asks for a dollar, gets turned down and moves on, that's still considered breaking the law, according to the ordinance as it's written.

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"This goes beyond addressing any problem," Wojcik said. "This is just being abusive to people. ... I'm really disappointed that we would go forward with this."

Educational component

Adkins has said that he expects the ordinance to face a court challenge, as similar ordinances around the country have been challenged. He based the draft ordinance on a Worcester, Mass., law that has been challenged in court and prevailed, he said.

One area included in Rochester's potential ordinance that's not on the books in Worcester is an educational component. Adkins' draft says a person can't be cited for aggressive panhandling until they've been informed by an officer about the rules, the penalties for breaking those rules and the social services available.

Michael Walters, a Rochester attorney, said he thinks having an aggressive panhandling ordinance is "discompassionate" and will lead to a lot of time and money spent on enforcing the law.

"This is going to be a waste of money," Walters said. "This will be a waste of money even if it's constitutional."

Walters said citing people will be difficult because the panhandlers likely can't afford to pay a fine and would need to be tracked down by law enforcement for further actions.

"They're not going to pay (a fine), and they're going to miss any court case that's given to them," Walters said. "It winds up costing us way more money than we could ever collect in fines."

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Two Rochester police officers said they were concerned with enforcing the law and the necessity of an ordinance.

"There are laws on the books that I feel would take control in situations like this if we actually had a problem," Lt. Eli Umpierre said.

Officer Jeff Stobbs said he's issued one ticket for a panhandler in his seven years on the job. Stobbs said other laws already cover most of what's included in the ordinance.

Council member Bruce Snyder said banning panhandling near ATMs is a new portion not covered by other laws and can be a matter of restricting speech for public safety, such as yelling fire in a public place.

"I don't really see a parallel between yelling fire and asking for a dollar," Stobbs said.

Getting worse

Others said they were supportive of an ordinance because the problem is getting out of hand.

"I was against the ordinance before. Quite frankly, I am a Christian, and it's against my beliefs. … but what's happened over the past year or so has changed my mind," said Joe Powers, owner of the Canadian Honker restaurant. Powers said he's seen problems with aggressive panhandlers at his business.

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"I can tell you this, if you don't think it's happening, it is," Powers said.

The Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau supports the ordinance, said Powers, who is a member of the CVB's board of directors. The Rochester Chamber of Commerce is in support of the law, too, said Ryan Lais, the workforce/advocacy project coordinator at the Chamber.

Council member Ed Hruska said he approves of the ordinance because the problem is going to get worse as time goes on.

"There is no easy solution … there is no right and wrong way to do it," Hruska said.

The ordinance received its first reading during Monday's meeting and will receive a second reading at the council's next meeting.

Mayor Ardell Brede said he supports the proposed ordinance. Brede vetoed a panhandling ordinance four years ago that would have required panhandlers to get a license from the city clerk, saying he didn't think it was practical. This time, he will not veto the ordinance, he said.

"I support this ordinance, even though it has probably plenty of reasons why it wouldn't be effective," Brede said. "It might make us all feel better that we've done something."

Pedestrian safety

A separate ordinance that outlaws activities in public medians also received a first reading Monday and moved ahead on a 6-1 vote.

The ordinance, also based on Worcester's law, takes a content-neutral approach and bans any activity, not just panhandling, in medians as a matter of public safety.

Mark St. Peter said a family member experienced firsthand the hazards of panhandling in the medians traveling north on Broadway to turn onto 37th Street.

"It's plain and simple — it is a public safety matter to the person panhandling," St. Peter said. "It is a public safety matter, and it's common sense to support that."

Means voted against the measure, saying she didn't really think that public safety on the medians was a problem at this time.

"If they're passively sitting there and they're not walking out in the street or actively soliciting funds … I just don't support that piece of it at all," Means said. "Have we had reports of safety issues?"

Wojcik said he approves of the median ordinance because it took a content-neutral approach and that there was a reasonable concern for public safety.

"I think this is a good way of going about this," Wojcik said. "It doesn't marginalize any people."

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