City commissioners will hear a pitch from one of their own on Tuesday to adopt a new set of regulations that would ban panhandling in the downtown area.
City Commissioner Aron Cromwell said he planned to ask commissioners to consider an outright ban on panhandling in the area from Sixth Street to 14th Street and from Vermont to New Hampshire streets.
“The only way I see to address this is to say that this activity isn’t allowed at all in our downtown,” said Cromwell, who thinks panhandling is turning off downtown visitors. “We just have to say no to this completely.”
The ban would prohibit people from either verbally asking for money or holding a sign, can or other device used to collect money in the downtown, Cromwell said. He said the city likely would need to look at a licensing process to allow street musicians and legitimate nonprofit agencies to solicit in the downtown area.
Commissioners at their meeting are not expected to take action on any specific ordinance. Instead, commissioners have put on their agenda an item to discuss a variety of issues related to downtown.
Cromwell said panhandling has to be near the top of the list of issues to fix.
“We had a really, really difficult summer with panhandling,” said Cromwell, who estimated there were as many as 30 different panhandlers at one time on Massachusetts Street during parts of the summer.
About a year ago, city commissioners considered a similar ban but failed to approve it after becoming concerned the ordinance could get the city sued over First Amendment concerns.
At that time, leaders with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union told commissioners they believed the proposed ban was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.
A city attorney at that time told the commission that the ban would put the city in relatively untested legal waters.
“Until it is tested in court, there are no guarantees,” Scott Miller, a staff attorney, said last December. “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.”
Cromwell’s proposal is more restrictive than what the city was contemplating last year. Last year’s proposal would have allowed passive panhandling — such as using a sign to ask for a donation — to continue. Cromwell’s idea would ban such solicitations.
But it is unclear whether Cromwell’s proposal will draw an objection from the ACLU or other groups. The local chapter of the ACLU has dissolved, its former president Phil Minkin said. Minkin, who previously objected to a ban, said he likely won’t actively oppose the ban.
“I don’t plan to go and speak on it,” Minkin said. “It is a hard balance. The panhandling does seem to be getting worse, but I don’t think it is anywhere nearly aggressive as it used to be.”
Attempts to reach a representative for the statewide chapter of the ACLU weren’t immediately successful.
The city previously passed an ordinance that makes “aggressive panhandling” illegal. That prohibits people from repeatedly asking for a donation, from touching a person while asking for a donation, or asking for donations near ATM machines.
Several merchants, though, have said that ordinance has not been well enforced, and Cromwell said it is flawed because it is too easy for panhandlers to get around.
Cromwell said he believes public support for a panhandling ban would be strong, especially if residents don’t view it as an attempt to hurt the homeless population.
“This is not a homeless issue,” Cromwell said. “We have a number of panhandlers up and down Mass Street. Some of them are homeless, but some of them aren’t. This is just a particular behavior we’re trying prevent. To think that allowing people to panhandle downtown is an answer to their plight, it is just not.”
Commissioners will meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.