Tampa City Council reverses course, rejects panhandling ban
TAMPA — The Tampa City Council reversed course Thursday, voting to reject a proposed ban on roadside solicitations on the city’s busiest roads.
The council killed the ban after hearing emotional testimony from nearly 40 people, mostly newspaper vendors, who predicted it would put them out of work.
]“It’s not the best job, but it’s something,” said Sonia Long, one of an estimated 260 vendors who hawk the St. Petersburg Times or Tampa Tribune in Tampa.
“I, too, have a college degree and I, too, have worked in corporate America, but it has been because of the economy that I have had to go and find other means to provide for my family,” said Long, 43, who has three three children. “Please don’t take the only dignity and respect that I have.”
The proposed ordinance would have banned panhandling, charitable collections, newspaper sales and other driver-to-pedestrian transactions on the city’s busiest roads, including N Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard.
But the ban would not have been complete. Roadside solicitations still would have been allowed on less-busy “collector” roads.
That would not have been enough, said Gwen Miller, one of two council members to change their vote from two weeks ago, when the proposed ban was initially approved.
Between the first and second votes, Miller said she went out looked at the traffic on smaller collector roads. She concluded there wasn’t enough traffic to support newspaper vendors.
“This is their livelihood, and I don’t want to take anyone’s livelihood away from them,’’ Miller said. “They would not have made any money on those streets.”
Council member Curtis Stokes said he changed his vote for two reasons. First, he thought banning solicitations on big roads but not little ones would have pushed panhandlers into neighborhoods, a position shared by Charlie Miranda, who also voted against the ordinance.
Stokes also said he was moved by hearing Morris Hintzman, the chief executive officer of Metropolitan Ministries, where Stokes is on the board of directors, say that the council needs to consider what to do to address homelessness.
“We’re dealing with 20 percent more people this year than we did a year ago,” Hintzman said.
The council’s vote now elevates panhandling as an issue in the city’s March 1 elections, where voters will make choices for mayor and all seven City Council seats.
Council chairman Thomas Scott and Council member Mary Mulhern voted for the ordinance, saying it wasn’t perfect but was a compromise that would make intersections safer.
Mulhern, who has repeatedly worried about how homelessness has been exacerbated by the recession, said the decision on what to do about panhandling has been the most difficult she’s dealt with on the council. It almost led her not to seek re-election, she said.
Based on what he’s hearing at candidate forums, Scott, who is running for mayor, said he expects that a re-constituted council would schedule a vote in early April on a total, citywide ban on roadside solicitations.
Scott challenged the idea that he doesn’t care about people in need or people who need work. One of his own parishioners at the 34th Street Church of God, where he is senior pastor, asked him to vote against the ordinance.
“I know what it is to be poor,” he said. “I grew up poor. I know what it is to sell newspapers. I’ve done that. I know what it is to be hungry.”
But state and federal courts have ruled that when it comes to making roadside solicitations — an activity with strong First Amendment overtones — the city cannot treat different groups differently, he said.
As a result, it could not allow some groups, such as firefighters collecting for charity, to ask for donations while banning others. Nor can it restrict street vending to certain days unless it has evidence showing that traffic conditions are not as dangerous on those days, City Attorney Chip Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, the Hillsborough County Commission this week moved toward tightening its regulation of solicitations in unincorporated Hillsborough.
County commissioners voted Wednesday to proceed with a proposal to extend the county’s existing panhandling ban to state roads, essentially eliminating all solicitation in unincorporated areas.
A county-appointed task force that included representatives from law enforcement and social service organizations concluded that panhandling was mainly a public safety issue that warrants stricter limits.
A comprehensive ban would make enforcement easier for deputies who now must figure out whether a panhandler is on a county or state road before taking action, Hillsborough County sheriff’s officials say.
The County Commission’s ban also would restrict newspaper sales and charitable solicitations. Commissioners have asked the staff to create new ordinance language, and the next step is to schedule a public hearing.