A plan to require people to obtain a license in order to verbally panhandle in downtown Lawrence gained no traction with city commissioners Tuesday night.
Instead, a majority of commissioners said they would rather give new downtown foot patrols by police officers more time to work, and also said they would consider authorizing plainclothes police officers to patrol the area in an attempt to catch aggressive panhandlers in the act.
“We can probably write whatever regulations and pass whatever regulations, but if we don’t have the enforcement, it won’t mean much,” Commissioner Lance Johnson said. “The increased foot patrols have helped but we’re going to have to keep looking at this, and it may be that we’re going to have to look at providing more resources.”
The idea of plainclothes police officers has been brought up multiple times by downtown merchants as a way to address the problem of catching panhandlers in the act of violating the city’s current aggressive panhandling ordinance — which makes it illegal to repeatedly ask for a donation, to touch an individual or to panhandle near ATMs.
Commissioners did not order City Manager David Corliss to immediately begin plainclothes patrols, but rather told Corliss to discuss police staffing options with Police Chief Ron Olin. The idea of a citizens patrol that would educate shoppers and panhandlers alike of the city’s laws on panhandling also was suggested.
But what was not recommended was a complete ban on downtown panhandling, which was proposed by City Commissioner Aron Cromwell earlier this year. Attorneys for the city said a ban likely would be found unconstitutional.
Instead, city staff presented a proposal that would have made it illegal to verbally ask for donations downtown, unless a person received a city-issued license. The license, however, would be free and there would be few reasons the city could legitimately use to reject a license application.
The proposal ended up drawing legal concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, and was largely a nonstarter for commissioners.
The proposal also brought out more than a dozen opponents, and even sparked a trio of concerned street musicians to perform in the lobby of City Hall prior to the meeting.
Commissioners heard several concerns that new panhandling regulations would tread on people’s First Amendment rights of free speech.
“I have the right to ask for help in this country,” said Amy Curtis, a Lawrence resident. “But I also have the right to say no to people asking for help. I can say no all by myself. I don’t need the city’s help to do that.”
But several downtown merchants also told commissioners they were concerned the panhandling issue was causing many shoppers and tourists to avoid downtown.
“If enforcement doesn’t increase, if some other mechanism doesn’t emerge, I can see downtown becoming overrun,” said Dan Hughes, an owner of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike, 804 Mass. “I think this summer it will be a free-for-all. People won’t call the police. They just won’t come back to downtown.”
Commissioners also said they wanted to explore creating a public education campaign about why it is important for residents to report aggressive panhandling when they see it, and also about how a better way to help the poor is to give money to the community’s social service agencies.
City commissioners also:
• Agreed to rescind their previous denial of a rezoning request for about 11 acres at the southeast corner of Inverness and Clinton Parkway. The request was to rezone the property from a residential office zoning to a multi-family zoning. Commissioners agreed to reconsider the issue after the developer held another meeting with concerned neighbors and offered to put several stipulations on the zoning. The rezoning request now will go back to the Planning Commission for consideration. Commissioners agreed to rescind their previous decision on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Mike Amyx was opposed.
• Gave Corliss the authority to submit a new bid for the vacant Farmland Industries property on Lawrence’s eastern edge. Commissioners did not disclose the details of the bid, but pledged to have a public discussion about the project prior to finalizing any contracts to purchase the nearly 500-acre former fertilizer plant. The city hopes to convert the property, which needs a significant amount of environmental cleanup, into a business park.
• Agreed to purchase three new hybrid diesel-electric buses for the city’s transit system. The $1.8 million purchase will be entirely funded by federal stimulus dollars.