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Clearwater tells panhandlers to keep quiet

CLEARWATER — Need a dollar? Maybe two? Don't beg here unless you have a guitar. Or you're a Girl Scout. Or you have a Salvation Army kettle.

The City Council is on its way to outlawing "verbal" soliciting in Clearwater's two biggest key areas of revitalization: the downtown and the beach.

The council on May 15 is expected to approve the requisite second reading of the ordinance. It passed unanimously on a first reading last week.

"We're creating a new environment with the BeachWalk and the Cleveland Street district and we want to make it friendlier for our residents and visitors," said Vice Mayor George Cretekos, who spearheaded the initiative.

Cretekos, who said he "gets hit up all the time" for money, said the rule doesn't prohibit someone from holding a sign, asking for money, or from playing a guitar and leaving the case open for visitors to drop coins into.

"But if I were to come up to you and say 'give me a dollar for a cup of coffee' — I can't do that," he said.

However, someone could remain quiet and let a sign do the talking, the vice mayor said.

The ordinance covers most of the downtown's core, with the exception of Coachman Park. Officials said it would be tough to enforce there because governments are limited by First Amendment protections as to what they can prohibit in a public park, said city attorney Pam Akin.

The ordinance also covers most of the southern portion of the beach, which has seen a recent bump in public and private revitalization, including the winding BeachWalk promenade.

The rules also cover private property unless an owner allows the solicitation.

It can also be enforced against religious and charitable organizations when members hit the street asking for donations.

However, it doesn't apply to anyone selling a product for a reasonable price, such as a Girl Scout knocking on doors to sell cookies. Nor does it affect the Salvation Army, because the organization already is required to get permission from property owners before members start ringing their bells.

"This prevents aggressive, personal, in-your-face soliciting," council member John Doran said.

What it doesn't prevent, Mayor Frank Hibbard warned, is homelessness. Nor will it completely halt panhandling.

"We have to have realistic expectations," Hibbard said. "But it gives us a new tool in our tool box."

Police officers must witness the solicitation and city leaders said violators get a warning first. Police will log their names into a system, so other officers will know whether they're repeat offenders. Jail, city leaders say, is the last option. Most caught begging will get a notice to appear in court. However, some council members questioned whether that would be an effective enforcement tool because it's unlikely offenders would actually show up.

The new ordinance augments a 1997 code that outlaws "aggressive" begging, panhandling that causes someone to "fear for their person or property citywide."

This code — "begging by intimidation" — carries an $88 fine.

Last year roughly 20 people were cited.

After council members first broached the ordinance in March, the Times talked to a number of beggars, and the reaction was as expected: They didn't like the proposal.

"There's bad and good with the rich and the poor," said Thomas Keough, 45, at the time. "But if I need a quarter for a phone call, I am asking for it."

Clearwater tells panhandlers to keep quiet 05/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 5:39pm]
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