In a 4-1 vote, city commissioners approved an ordinance prohibiting people from panhandling along a public road.
The new law, which was approved on second reading Tuesday afternoon, would replace a repealed ordinance, called ordinance 23-1, that prohibited panhandlers from using signs to ask motorists for money.
The law designed to curb panhandling in the city will become effective April 29. Mayor Suzanne Atwell said the proliferation of people panhandling at nearly every busy intersection “is not a good presentation of the community.”
City commissioners heard from a half-dozen residents speaking about the need for a solicitation ordinance. They also heard from paralegal Michael Barfield, the legal chair of the Sarasota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who said the law could be challenged as unconstitutional.
“I don’t think the ACLU will ever say they are happy with anything the city will do about solicitation," said City Attorney Bob Fournier. “And I am not ready to say we throw in the towel because we can’t write an ordinance that is constitutional, because I believe we can.”
The ordinance approved Tuesday is largely modeled after a similar law in St. Petersburg.
“It is what the city of St. Petersburg did, and that survived a legal challenge,” Fournier said.
Barfield, however, argued the new ordinance was too much, and individuals who were not soliciting motorists could nonetheless be issued a citation because an officer could infer intent, as the new law is written.
“We don’t protect the right of the panhandler,” Barfield said. “We protect the rights of everyone.”
Before the vote, downtown restaurant owner Jim Sullivan said the panhandling issue has grown out of control, and he pleaded with commissioners to do something.
“It’s a problem, and I don’t see it lessening,” Sullivan told commissioners before their vote Tuesday. “I don’t know what the solution is. I have real estate agents who wont bring clients into my restaurant because of the homeless population at that corner.”
Atwell, along with Commissioners Terry Turner, Willie Shaw and Paul Caragiulo voted to approve the ordinance — with Commissioner Shannon Snyder voting No.
The law would not prohibit someone standing along the road advertising for a business or campaigning for a local candidate. “But they cannot ask for money,” Fournier said.
City Commissioners also:
• Discussed a proposed moratorium on approval of conditional use permits for bars, taverns and nightclubs.
Commissioners did not vote on the moratorium, instead deciding to focus on trying to seek “long term” solutions to downtown sound issues. The topic is scheduled for another discussion at the upcoming May 6 City Commission meeting.