TAMPA — Reversing course Thursday, the Tampa City Council rejected a proposed ban on roadside solicitations on the city's busiest roads.
The council killed the ban after hearing emotional testimony from nearly 40 people, mostly newspaper vendors, who predicted it would put them out of work.
"It's not the best job, but it's something," said Sonia Long, one of an estimated 260 vendors who hawk the St. Petersburg Times or Tampa Tribune on city streets.
"I, too, have a college degree and I, too, have worked in corporate America, but it has been because of the economy that I have had to go and find other means to provide for my family," said Long, 43, who has three children. "Please don't take the only dignity and respect that I have."
The vote means that Tampa remains free for now of the kind of bans on solicitation adopted by St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County, and that panhandling likely will be a bigger issue in the March 1 city election.
Tampa's proposed ordinance would have banned panhandling, charitable collections, newspaper sales and other driver-to-pedestrian transactions on the city's most heavily traveled roads, including Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard.
Proponents of a ban say the number of people carrying signs with hard-luck appeals has grown dramatically in Tampa since June, when St. Petersburg adopted an even tougher ordinance.
Tampa council members have debated a ban since October, with several members struggling over whether the city should address the underlying problems of unemployment and homelessness.
Still, neighborhood leaders have called for a ban, and police say it's dangerous to have people walking in and out of traffic at busy intersections. Officers respond to about three calls a day related to roadside soliciting and typically make an arrest a day.
But Tampa's ban would not have gone as far as St. Petersburg's. Rather, it still would have allowed roadside solicitations on less-busy "collector" roads.
Maybe, but that would not be enough to help newspaper vendors, said Gwen Miller, one of two council members to change their votes from two weeks ago when the proposed ban was initially approved.
Between the first and second votes, Miller said she looked at the traffic on smaller collector roads. She concluded there wasn't enough traffic to support newspaper vendors.
"This is their livelihood, and I don't want to take anyone's livelihood away from them,'' Miller said. "They would not have made any money on those streets."
Council member Curtis Stokes said he changed his vote partly because he thought banning solicitations on big roads but not little ones would have pushed panhandlers into neighborhoods, a position shared by Charlie Miranda, who also voted against the ordinance.
Council Chairman Thomas Scott and council member Mary Mulhern voted for the ordinance, saying it was a compromise that would make busy intersections safer while allowing people to still sell newspapers elsewhere.
"This issue and this ordinance is the most difficult thing that I've had to do on council," Mulhern said. "It almost convinced me not to even run for re-election, because I don't feel like this addresses any of the problems. I believe there were very eloquent speakers here today who talked about panhandling being a symptom of a disease, and the disease is our incredible, terrible economy."
Based on what he hears at candidate forums, Scott, who is running for mayor, said he expects that a reconstituted council would schedule a vote in early April on a total, citywide ban.
Scott challenged the idea that he doesn't care about people in need. One of his parishioners at the 34th Street Church of God, where he is senior pastor, asked him to vote against the ban.
"I know what it is to be poor," he said. "I grew up poor. I know what it is to sell newspapers. I've done that. I know what it is to be hungry."
But state and federal courts have ruled that when it comes to making roadside solicitations — an activity with strong First Amendment overtones — the city cannot treat different groups differently, he said.
As a result, it could not allow some groups to ask for donations while banning others. Nor can it restrict street vending to certain days unless it has evidence that traffic conditions are not as dangerous on those days, City Attorney Chip Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, the Hillsborough County Commission this week moved to tighten its regulations in unincorporated areas.
Commissioners voted Wednesday to proceed with a proposal to extend the county's existing ban on panhandling, charity drives and newspaper sales to state roads, eliminating all solicitation in unincorporated areas.
A county-appointed task force that included representatives from law enforcement and social service organizations concluded panhandling was mainly a public safety issue warranting that warrants stricter limits.
A comprehensive ban makes enforcement easier for deputies who now must figure out whether a panhandler is on a county or state road before taking action, Hillsborough County sheriff's officials say.