ST. PETERSBURG — Despite mounting objections from vendors and charities, a proposed ban on pedestrians soliciting money from motorists has broad support from the City Council.
After approving the language of the new rule, council members on Thursday scheduled the final public hearing on the proposed ban for 6 p.m. June 3.
"I like it," council member Jeff Danner said of the three-page draft ordinance. "I don't want to rush into anything and get sued for something that we can't enforce. With this, I feel like we can enforce it."
It's illegal to stand on the median of a street and solicit money. But prompted by neighborhood complaints about the growing ranks of homeless panhandlers, council members have pushed for tougher restrictions.
The proposed ordinance makes it illegal to solicit money from motorists while standing on the sidewalk or the side of the road. It doesn't distinguish between panhandlers and those collecting money for causes such as muscular dystrophy, as firefighters do every year, or those selling newspapers.
City Attorney John Wolfe has said the ordinance would be more vulnerable to a legal challenge if it made exceptions.
"It's too bad it has to be this way," Danner said. "But every other fundraiser can do it without being in the street."
Even council members Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton, who previously voiced reservations about the ban, said they support it.
So that means before the public has had a chance to weigh in on the matter, the council has reached a consensus. It did so by discussing the ban during at least four committee meetings since January. Although the meetings are open to the public, they are held in a cramped conference room. Only council members and staff members are allowed to speak at these meetings.
"That's the value of these meetings," said council member Herb Polson. "I know what my colleagues are thinking. I can pretty much tell you what's going to happen next Thursday."
When asked what that was, Polson replied: "Subject to public input, of course, I get a sense there's little dissent."
Still, public dissent could be formidable.
Sherry Yagovane, St. Petersburg's executive director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, said she plans to pack the council chambers next week with people who benefit from the money raised in their annual firefighter "boot drive" campaigns.
She's routing letters from the likes of Jerry Lewis and those with muscular dystrophy to City Council members and Mayor Bill Foster, who also supports the ban.
"This is a personal issue for me because I myself have muscular dystrophy," wrote Amanda Campau in a May 16 e-mail. "The funds that the firefighters collect have helped me to receive medical care and treatment that I would otherwise not be able to afford."
Yagovane said boot campaigns raised $28 million nationally last year. She said she was disappointed that council members won't consider alternatives, used in Tallahassee and Alachua County, that allow boot campaigns under certain circumstances.
"They are making this all or nothing," Yagovane said. "We'll lose two-thirds of our donations because of this. A lot of people will be adversely affected."
Steve Walls, 47, a homeless man staying at the Pinellas Hope tent city, called the proposal "obviously" a slap at homeless people that also hurts people who aren't panhandling. Working for a contractor, he sells newspapers each Sunday in St. Petersburg, earning $100 with tips from customers, he said.
"That $100 goes away," Walls said of the effect of a ban on him. "Those people don't have a problem with it. They want to have the newspaper."
Walls said he doesn't panhandle, which is a no-no at Pinellas Hope, where meals and shelter are provided to homeless people. But some residents have begun following the council debate, worried their Sunday work will be eliminated.
"They ought to focus on the particular problem," Walls said, "and not the people who are not causing the problem."
The St. Petersburg Times opposes the ban. Each Sunday, street vendors sell thousands of papers to motorists at busy intersections.
"Roads and sidewalks and public places are the traditional venue for the exercise of free speech and the free press," the newspaper's legal counsel, George Rahdert, said in an interview. "A complete ban on the most important roads in the city is unwise, unfair and unconstitutional."
Unlike panhandlers, newspaper vendors are trained, wear uniforms and are supervised, Rahdert said. Yagovane said the firefighters who collect money for MDA also are trained. Locally, MDA raised $30,000 last year in the boot drive. Rahdert said about 90 people earn all or part of their income selling newspapers.
"If this were to pass, some of these people will be forced into homelessness," Rahdert said. "We're adding to the problem rather than taking away from it. The public safety issue is a pretext to getting unsightly individuals out of our view. If there was a documented problem involving unfortunate accidents, that would be one thing, but there isn't."
Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.