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Tampa acts to repeal part of panhandling ban

TAMPA — The City Council took the first step Thursday toward repealing part of its controversial bans on panhanding.

Council members voted 6-1 to repeal the city's ban on soliciting in the right of way and an accompanying exemption that allowed newspaper vendors to work the streets seven days a week. A second and final vote will take place July 16.

Chairman Frank Reddick cast the sole vote against repeal.

"We've got young folks out there starving trying to make ends meet, and some of them work the side of those road selling newspapers," he said after the meeting. "I just don't feel that these people should be denied an opportunity to earn a living."

But while the city capitulated on this part of the ordinance, the move suggests that officials will fight to preserve the rest of its panhandling ban.

Both parts of the law have been challenged in federal court by the nonprofit group Homeless Helping Homeless. The charity contends the city's bans are unconstitutional, overly broad, target certain types of speech based on its content and treat different groups differently.

The law was passed in 2011, but more precedent-setting First Amendment cases have come out since 2013 than in the previous decade, City Attorney Julia Mandell said.

But homeless activist Derek Chamblee contended that the bans are unconstitutional and constitute "economic profiling against the poor and the homeless."

The council scheduled the vote two weeks ago after meeting with the city's attorney in a closed session to discuss legal strategy, the costs of litigation and the prospect of settling some or all of the case. Several suggested repeal was not an idea they like.

"What we are doing here today is an attempt to save the city and the citizens their taxpayer dollars," said council member Yvonne Yolie Capin.

"Litigation is an iffy proposition a lot of times," council member Mike Suarez said. "I think this is about the only thing we can do at this point."

Before the meeting, Mayor Bob Buckhorn agreed.

"Obviously, our attorneys are concerned that we're on shaky legal ground," he said.

Buckhorn said he thinks the risk goes to the city's prohibition on panhandling from the median and the exemption that allows newspaper hawkers to make roadside sales seven days a week.

A second ban that covers panhandling in downtown and Ybor City has also been challenged in court by Homeless Helping Homeless, but the mayor said he believes the city's position there is stronger.

"The vast majority of this community does not like the panhandling in the medians and is ready for it to go ... but it's a hard case to defend when you've carved out certain forms of speech and excluded others," Buckhorn said.

Tampa officials note that even if they repeal their roadside solicitation bans, a similar Hillsborough County ban would still be in place, and it applies inside the city.

"This does not mean that people are allowed to solicit within the right of way," Suarez said. "The county ordinance is very clear."

Officials from the city and Homeless Helping Homeless are scheduled to meet at a mediation conference Friday.

In unrelated business, the council also:

• Scheduled a public hearing for 9:30 a.m. Aug. 27 on whether to raise Tampa's annual storm water fee for property owners.

The fee is now $36 for the owner of a medium-sized home, but could rise to $180 a year. City officials say the additional funds could pay for a $250 million program of drainage improvements and better pond and ditch maintenance. The fee has not gone up since 2005.

• Was told it does not have standing to file a federal civil rights complaint in an attempt to block a controversial Interstate 275 express lanes project.

Such challenges, senior assistant city attorney Sal Territo said, can only be filed by individuals, not cities.

Council members said they planned to pursue other ways to be involved in reviewing plans for the project, which would add tolled express lanes to I-275 and rebuild the interstate's interchanges to downtown and at State Road 60 near West Shore.

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

Tampa acts to repeal part of panhandling ban 06/25/15 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2015 6:57pm]
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