Tampa City Council declines to schedule referendum on panhandling ban
TAMPA — The City Council declined Thursday to schedule a referendum on banning panhandling after hearing from the organizer of a petition drive to put the issue on the city’s March 1 ballot. It’s the second time in two months that the council has opted not to vote on the issue of banning aggressive roadside begging.
“It is a dangerous situation,” said Spencer Kass, who is leading the effort to gather 18,000 signatures by Dec. 26 to put the issue on the ballot. Kass, the president of the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association in South Tampa, started circulating petitions last week. But he said the task of gathering the required number of signatures in a little more than two weeks is daunting — and unnecessary. “City Council, by your motion, can place this on the ballot today,” he told council members. “The very least you can do is let the public decide how they want their streets used.”
Only one council member was ready to act. “We should have the guts to put it up and vote on it,” said council member Joseph Caetano, who has called for a ban for more than a year. Allowing panhandling drives away people who might otherwise live or work in Tampa, he said. “People don’t want to come here when they see 10 or 15 people standing on the corner of Fowler Avenue, he said.
But other council members brought up the cost of enforcing the ban, the need to seek a consensus of opinion from neighborhood groups and the possible impact on charities that also seek donations from motorists. “You can’t just say, 'I don’t like these people. Get rid of them,’ ” Council member Charlie Miranda said. Groups like the Shriners, firefighters’ boot drives to raise money to fight muscular dystrophy and vendors trying to make a living by hawking newspapers could all be affected. Miranda asked city staff members to investigate whether traffic is heavier during certain hours or on certain days so the city can tailor regulations that don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. “It seems real simple,” he said, “but it becomes much more complex when you look at it.”
Despite the council’s inaction Thursday, council Chairman Thomas Scott said it is working on the problem. Scott said he is talking to city attorneys about a possible ordinance to ban panhandling on major arterial roads in the city. The goal, he said, is to develop something the city can defend in court. “It will be challenged,” he said.
In October, council members cited high unemployment in rejecting calls from neighborhoods, Mayor Pam Iorio and police to ban panhandling on city streets. Proponents of a ban said Tampa’s streets have gotten worse since June, when St. Petersburg enacted a wide-ranging ban on panhandling and roadside vending. Hillsborough County has an ordinance banning solicitation within 4 feet of the right-of-way. Temple Terrace and Plant City also limit solicitation. Tampa allows it, but requires people to wear safety vests when asking for money, raising funds or selling items. The County Commission has created a committee to study why current rules are not working as they are intended. City Council members said they want to hear from that committee before moving ahead with changes to the city’s rules.