City commissioners Tuesday balked at placing tougher regulations on downtown panhandlers after being told the new rules could land the city in a risky lawsuit.
Up for approval was a new set of regulations that would make it illegal for anyone to ask verbally for an immediate donation of money on a downtown sidewalk or street. The proposed ordinance drew a sharp response from an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, who said he thought the regulations would be found unconstitutional by a court.
A staff attorney from the city told commissioners he couldn’t give them much assurance that the city would win a lawsuit challenging the legality of the regulations.
“Until it is tested in court, there are no guarantees,” Scott Miller, a staff attorney for the city, said. “The ACLU probably has some pretty valid arguments it can advance in court about why it is not lawful. We have arguments we can advance in court to respond to those.”
Commissioners instead agreed to table the proposed regulations, and directed staff members to meet with downtown merchants who have expressed concerns about panhandlers frightening customers. Commissioners also asked staff to talk with the police department to determine whether more officers could patrol the downtown area.
Commissioners held open the possibility of bringing the regulations back up for approval if conditions did not improve in the downtown. Commissioners Mike Amyx and Sue Hack indicated they were ready to give the new regulations a try, but they did not find a third vote. Commissioner Rob Chestnut, though, made a point to say he thought the city would be within its legal rights to implement the new regulations, but first wanted to try greater enforcement of an existing ordinance that bans aggressive panhandling.
In other business, commissioners:
• approved the Farmers Turnpike Plan on a 4-1 vote. The sector plan spells out how approximately 4,000 acres of property along the Kansas Turnpike northwest of Lawrence should be developed. Commissioner Boog Highberger voted against the plan. The plan now must be presented to the Douglas County Commission. A date hasn’t yet been set for that hearing.
• agreed on a 4-1 vote that a proposed extension of 31st Street from Haskell Avenue to County Road 1057 should be designed for speeds of 45 miles per hour. Highberger voted against the design, saying the road should be designed for 35 mile per hour speed to better accommodate pedestrians.