CLEARWATER — Two months ago, citing concerns about legal challenges, city leaders were leaning toward a total ban on street solicitation.
But despite safety concerns about people approaching vehicles, City Council members have decided against the ban.
Thursday, they voted 4-1 in favor of an amended ordinance, which spares firefighter boot drives and other charitable collections. Council member Bill Jonson dissented.
"I just continue to believe it's a safety concern," Jonson said Friday.
Mayor Frank Hibbard said he supported the amended ordinance reluctantly.
At last month's meeting he said the roads are getting more and more dangerous, especially because drivers are too distracted. He's seen some motorists doing "the darnedest things," including flossing "with both hands," he said.
But, he said Friday, "I am sensitive to how hard hit not-for-profits have been." The ordinance is a bit of a compromise because it still limits soliciting to 10 days a year, so it won't be an "ongoing everyday issue," he said.
The city decided to amend its ordinance to create fewer barriers for individuals, including homeless people, who want to solicit along the city's roadways. It did so because the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office warned the city that the previous ordinance would likely be challenged.
But the amended ordinance probably won't change much for homeless people who solicit along Clearwater roads. It seems unlikely that panhandlers would participate in the required application process or be on board with requirements to solicit only 10 days a year or to post a sign at least 500 feet before the site where they plan to panhandle.
"I haven't come into contact with anyone talking about filling out that application," said Raine Johns, director of Baker Acts and homeless outreach services at the Public Defender's Office. "It's not the least bit practical."
The new ordinance includes a process for appealing denied solicitation permits. It also waives the requirement to get liability insurance with a claim limit of at least $1 million if individuals can prove that they can't afford the premium.
St. Petersburg's ban went into effect a week ago. Clearwater implemented one in 1999, but in 2008, Clearwater added exemptions that let its firefighter's 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 two federal courts in Florida have ruled unconstitutional.
This year Public Defender Bob Dillinger informed Clearwater and other law enforcement agencies that they were arresting people for violating that law despite the federal court rulings. The Public Defender's Office pointed out that the city's ordinance had similar problems.
Last month, Rob Surette, assistant Clearwater city attorney, told city leaders that he preferred an outright ban. But, he said, these amendments will increase the ordinance's constitutional defensibility.
Raine Johns has her doubts.
"I don't think it's enough to get them away from being constitutionally challenged," she said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.