ST. PETERSBURG — After listening to more than four hours of public testimony, the City Council unanimously voted Thursday night to ban street solicitation on the busiest streets.
The move pleased neighborhood leaders worried about panhandlers, but most certainly will spark a lawsuit by newspapers, who use street hawkers, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which raises money in an annual street fundraising campaign.
Council members said the bans on street vending and charity fundraising were "collateral damage," but were necessary in a move they said was demanded by the general population looking for ways to limit a surge in panhandling.
"The population is overwhelmingly in support of this ordinance," said council member Bill Dudley. "We live here, too. We're frustrated like everyone else. So we're going to go with it."
Despite Dudley's assertion of wide support, Thursday's testimony was evenly split. Fifty-one who spoke were against it, 50 who spoke were for it.
Neighborhood leaders spoke gravely about the fear many felt when panhandlers approach their cars. Those suffering from muscular dystrophy spoke about the gratitude they felt toward the firefighters who collect money for their care, and how the ban would interfere. Newspaper hawkers spoke anxiously about the lost income the ban would cause them, pushing them into the homeless ranks.
It's already illegal to stand on the median of a street and solicit money. But neighborhood leaders and the Council of Neighborhood Associations want tougher rules aimed at reducing the number of panhandlers wandering residential areas.
"We're at the epicenter of the panhandling crisis," said Bob VanSweden, vice president of the Central Oak Park Neighborhood Association. "I don't want to raise my son in a city where there's a panhandler on every corner. Let's clean up this city. The taxpayers are fed up."
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.
Dozens of protesters came to City Hall before the meeting, gathering along Fifth Street N while they were fed free hot dogs, pretzels and water. The event was organized by the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, the Refuge, St. Pete for Peace, Citizens of St. Pete and homeless people.
"This ordinance is an assault on free speech, human rights and the poor and working class," said Pastor Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries. "The city doesn't want poor people in the downtown. This is what this is about. They want to turn downtown into Disney's Celebration."
Sherry Yagovane, St. Petersburg's executive director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, said scores of people benefit from the money raised in their annual firefighter "boot drive" campaigns.
Yagovane said boot campaigns raised $28 million nationally last year. Locally, $30,000 was raised last year in the boot drive. Susie Austin, the MDA's Florida regional director, said the organization planned a legal challenge.
One person with the disease, Kathy Lentz, told the council that the ban would hinder efforts to raise money for her medical care and assistance.
"It would be devastating," said Lentz, who works at a nonprofit. "I wouldn't be able to maintain my life. Or my job."
The St. Petersburg Times opposes the ban. Each Sunday, street vendors sell thousands of papers to motorists at busy intersections. The newspaper's legal counsel, George Rahdert, said about 90 people earn all or part of their income selling newspapers. He said he would file suit in federal court challenging the law.
One of those who make money selling newspapers is Joe Mathis, who uses what he earns to pay rent in a shelter.
"This is my only source of income," Mathis told the council. "There's some good people out there who are going to be hurt by this."
Another hawker, Patricia Brady, 79, said the ban was counterproductive. Homeless panhandlers will find food and shelter in jail if they violate the new law, she said. They'll be back on the street corner when they are released from jail.
Also opposing the ban is the Tampa Tribune. James Lake, an attorney who represented the paper Thursday, said it violates state law. He said the new law bans soliciting on state roads, which can't be done by cities.
Mayor Bill Foster commended the council on its vote.
This weekend city officials will educate the public about the new ban. Enforcement will start June 13, he said.