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St. Pete Council bans standing in medians to solicit

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite strong opposition from businesses and charities, the City Council voted Thursday to ban solicitations in public medians.

Under the ordinance, no one could stand in a city median unless they are trying to cross the street.

Mayor Rick Baker and assistant police Chief Luke Williams urged the council to approve the measure, saying it would improve safety.

"I'm hopeful that we can keep people from going in the road," Baker said. "To me, it's a safety issue."

The ordinance, which takes effect Thursday, would affect charities, panhandlers, politicians, booster clubs, newspaper vendors and others.

Williams said the ordinance is needed because traffic continues to increase on city streets, posing danger to people standing in medians. "Thankfully, we have not had anyone injured recently," he said, "but the threat is there."

The vote passed 7-1. Council member Wengay Newton cast the lone dissenting vote.

"It does too much infringing on people's civil rights," Newton said.

That possibility didn't seem to faze council member Jim Kennedy, an attorney, who at one point uttered, "the Constitution is an inconvenient document."

The measure could hurt charitable groups, which often collect donations from medians because it allows them easy access to many drivers.

"We are disappointed," said Rick Pauley, vice president of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, which collected $25,000 this year during its annual "Fill the Boot" campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. "It's going to severely limit our ability to collect donations."

Amber Saltzman, a program coordinator for the St. Petersburg MDA , said the ban could reduce future donations by 75 percent. That's bad news for local families that depend on the organization to help cover their health care expenses.

"MDA is almost like my lifeline here," said Katie Kerns before the vote. Her daughter Allison, 3, suffers from muscular dystrophy and doctors predicted she wouldn't live past the age of 2. "I hope you all will consider that when making this decision."

Civil rights activist Dwight Lawton called the measure ridiculous.

"You should be focusing on some more serious problems," he said.

The St. Petersburg Times, which uses hawkers to sell Sunday newspapers in medians, also opposed the measure. The newspaper's attorney, Tom Reynolds, told the council the measure violates the First Amendment, which protects newspaper sales.

Times' hawkers sell more than 8,000 newspapers on Sundays in St. Petersburg, said Craig W. Holley, deputy director of consumer marketing.

Only one person spoke in favor of the measure at Thursday's meeting, but the council has received at least a dozen e-mails in support of the ordinance.

"Any form of distraction that is in the sight view of the driver tends to influence him," said Ford Easton, a former professional driver who supported the median ban. "It's just bad."

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.

The council revisited the issue this year after a recent ban on panhandling downtown pushed beggars into other city hubs.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Pete Council bans standing in medians to solicit 10/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 3:13pm]
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