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Petition drive for Tampa referendum on panhandling ban falls short

TAMPA — It's less and less likely that Tampa voters will get to vote on a St. Petersburg-style ban on roadside panhandling.

Neighborhood leaders had hoped to put the question on the ballot for the March 1 city elections. But on Monday, the day the petitions were due, the drive's leader said the effort fell short of the 18,000 signatures that organizers needed.

Spencer Kass said he could not say how many signed petitions he did receive, but "we have a box filled with them."

"We'll be bringing them down to City Council at their Jan. 6 meeting," he said.

"I think if we would have been given more time, we really would have reached our goal," said Kass, the president of the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association in South Tampa. As more people learned of the petition, he said, interest picked up.

The problem was, organizers had only a little more than two weeks to gather the signatures. That was the time they had from the day that local officials approved the form of the petitions to first thing Monday, when they were due at the Hills­borough County supervisor of elections to be counted and verified.

There isn't enough time now for anyone to mount another petition drive in time for the city's March 1 elections, supervisor of elections spokesman Travis Abercrombie said.

The council itself could still put the matter on the ballot, but needs to do so by the end of qualifying, which is Jan. 14, Abercrombie said. And the council already has declined to do that once.

To get the referendum on the city's ballot, organizers needed signatures from registered Tampa voters equal to at least 10 percent of the people registered to vote in the 2007 city election. That's nearly 18,000 signatures.

By comparison, Kass noted that a City Council candidate must turn in fewer than a thousand signatures to get on the ballot by petition.

"There's something wrong with our system," he said.

The question of what to do about roadside panhandling has simmered for months. In June, St. Petersburg officials banned motorist-to-pedestrian transactions, including panhandling, newspaper sales and charity solicitations, along its major roads.

Since then, Tampa and other communities have reported an increase in the number of men and women standing on medians toting cardboard signs seeking handouts.

Despite support from neighborhood groups, Mayor Pam Iorio and police, the Tampa City Council declined in October to ban panhandling.

On Dec. 16, Kass asked the council to put the question on the ballot itself, but council members again demurred.

Council member Joseph Caetano supported scheduling a referendum, but others said they had concerns about the impact of a ban on the unemployed, the cost of enforcement, the likelihood that it would be challenged legally and the chance that it would hurt charitable groups and firefighters who seek donations from motorists for good causes.

Council Chairman Thomas Scott said Dec. 16 that he and the City Attorney's Office were working on an ordinance to address panhandling on major city roads and that the ordinance may be ready for the City Council to discuss in January.

Despite falling short, Kass vowed to stay on the issue and predicted that council members would have no choice but to take action sooner or later.

"I can promise you, it is going to be a major issue come election time," he said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Petition drive for Tampa referendum on panhandling ban falls short 12/27/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 27, 2010 9:33pm]
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