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Groups ready to fight ban on median use

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council plans to ban people from stopping in a median for anything other than crossing the street, which could affect myriad groups, from charities to panhandlers, political campaigns to newspaper vendors.

"It's about safety," said council chairman Jamie Bennett. "We don't need people out in the middle of the street."

The police and Mayor Rick Baker endorse the proposal, but community groups already are organizing against it. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 2. A second vote is required before the measure takes effect.

"We've always opposed any ordinance that would limit our ability to help needy families," said Winthrop Newton, president of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, which holds regular "Fill the Boot" campaigns for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

"The MDA and the union will come out and oppose this," he said. "Groups like ours are being safe and the public looks forward to us being there. It's evident by the collection that we take."

The St. Petersburg Times has a contractor who handles street sales in Pinellas County.

"Times vendors have been selling papers at street corners and medians for many years and thousands of citizens find it a convenience," said Andrew Corty, Times vice president and spokesman. "It sounds like the council is solving a problem that doesn't exist."

The council has haggled over cleaning up the city's medians for years. Similar bans were proposed and abandoned because of public opposition in 2004 and 2007. State law bans anyone from standing in the road to solicit a ride, employment or business from a driver, but standing on medians or sidewalks is legal.

Council members say standing in a media shouldn't be legal because it's too risky. Largo and Tampa are considering similar measures this month. But the measure is being revisited in St. Petersburg in part to address concerns about the area's growing homeless population.

Council member Herb Polson said he gets complaints all the time about panhandlers near Tyrone Square Mall.

"There is hardly an intersection in town where you won't find one, two, three, four, five people working the street," he said.

A city ordinance prohibits panhandling downtown, but the city's legal staff said a citywide measure could violate the First Amendment.

"This doesn't mean a person can't hold up a sign and ask for money. You just have to go to the sidewalk to do it," Polson said.

Bennett said he agreed to revisit the measure after recently observing a group of small children standing on a street median selling candy.

"I was just horrified," he said. "They were all running in the road."

Groups ready to fight ban on median use 09/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:48pm]
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