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Clearwater may ban soliciting on streets

Thomas Otto, 37, who is homeless and sleeps behind a St. Petersburg building, approaches a driver Friday who offered Otto a dollar as he solicited help at the parking lot at Clearwater Mall.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Thomas Otto, 37, who is homeless and sleeps behind a St. Petersburg building, approaches a driver Friday who offered Otto a dollar as he solicited help at the parking lot at Clearwater Mall.

CLEARWATER — Homeless people are getting in trouble over approaching cars for money while organizations like the firefighters union can legally solicit on public roads in Clearwater.

But that's likely to change.

The City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to ban everyone from approaching vehicles on public streets to solicit money, business or a job. More approvals will be required, however, for the change to take effect.

Most city leaders said their decision was about public safety.

"I know this is going to irritate our firefighters. I got that. But I've never been real comfortable with having them out there," Mayor Frank Hibbard said.

The city decided to review the ordinance after the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office raised constitutional questions about it and said it would probably be challenged.

The council's decision is not a done deal. The council must vote on an amended ordinance, which is expected to come before city leaders in May. It will be similar to an ordinance city leaders approved in 1999.

"I just hope they reconsider going back to the 1999 standards," said Gerard Devivo, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1158. "We are taking numerous steps backwards if we do."

The changes supported by the council would prevent the union from conducting its boot drives on public roads to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

In 2008, the city added exemptions that let the union and other organizations solicit on public roadways if they met certain requirements. The changes were in line with 2007 amendments to a state law, which federal judges in Florida had previously ruled unconstitutional.

Vice Mayor John Doran, who reluctantly supported the ban, said the only reason city leaders amended the ordinance two years ago was they didn't like the idea of city police citing city firefighters.

Council member George Cretekos voted against returning to the 1999 standards. He favored other proposed changes that would let anyone solicit if they met certain requirements, such as applying for a permit. Cretekos said an across-the-board ban would hurt businesses or organizations that want to do so safely.

Council member Paul Gibson said if the city didn't revert to its former ban, "every social activist, every good-doer we have in the area will be all over this," he said.

Earlier this year Public Defender Bob Dillinger informed the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Clearwater and St. Petersburg's police departments that they were arresting people for violating a state law that was ruled unconstitutional in two federal courts.

Dillinger asked them to stop. It appears all eventually did, said Raine Johns, director of Baker Acts and homeless outreach services at the Public Defender's Office

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office also decided not to prosecute those cases.

In February, Rob Surette, assistant Clearwater city attorney, urged former police Chief Sid Klein to inform officers not to arrest people for violating that state law. Instead, police could cite people for the similar city ordinance, he said. He also advised them not to arrest anyone because the infraction is only punishable by a fine.

Then, the Public Defender's Office pointed out that the city's ordinance had similar problems. It informed Surette that the ordinance would be challenged.

Stetson University law professor Charles H. Rose said the across-the-board ban appears more legally defensible.

"That's a neutral application of a restriction," said Rose, who is director for Center for Excellence in Advocacy. "That might be constitutional, but it might not be palatable to some businesses."

Ironically, there won't be much change for homeless people who hold up signs and ask motorists for money or work. A number will still likely get cited.

John Vallaro, who says he's homeless and jobless, doesn't think that's fair, especially if they're not hurting anyone.

"We're just asking for help. If a human being is willing to help, what's wrong with that?" said Vallaro, 51, who stood by the side of the road Friday near Clearwater Mall holding a sign saying "Homeless and hungry. No job. In need of help."

Times staff writer Douglas Clifford contributed to this report.

Clearwater may ban soliciting on streets 04/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 16, 2010 9:06pm]

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