The City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Thursday that bans panhandling on the busiest streets in St. Petersburg.
The council chambers took on a courtroom feel as city attorney John Wolfe paraded three city officials to the podium for testimony at the start of the public forum: Dave Goodwin, director of planning and economic development; police Chief Chuck Harmon; and Joe Kubicki, director of transportation and parking.
Proponents of the ordinance, including those officials, said the ban was necessary, calling it a public safety issue. But the public safety expert — Harmon — could cite only three instances where that issue came into play in his 27 years of police work. Even the panhandlers mocked him.
Firefighters and newspaper hawkers aside, this was clearly a social issue. It was unfortunate that supporters of the ordinance chose public safety as its linchpin.
Some cited fear of aggressive panhandlers at service stations. If this is a growing problem, the onus should be on the business owners and police to ensure customers are safe. Overly aggressive panhandling shouldn't be tolerated. Is hiring an off-duty officer at these establishments out of the question?
Some proponents expressed embarrassment they feel when visiting relatives and friends inquire about the panhandlers near interstate off-ramps. Okay, so they infringe upon your sense of civic pride when company comes. I get that.
St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. We want all visitors to swoon at its sweeping waterfront vistas, marvel at its oh-so-cool, eclectic arts scene and utter platitudes about its evolving, yet striking, skyline.
But know this: The passage of the ordinance doesn't solve the panhandling problem. Homelessness and panhandling are two brushes that the council and counsel have managed to wrongly place in the same paint bucket. With a 12 percent unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay area, coupled with high foreclosure rates in this city, neither group is going to disappear.
Some opponents who spoke at the public forum called it a "broad brush ordinance." I prefer to call it the "eyesore ordinance."
Yes, the 60 seconds at a traffic light can seem like an uncomfortable eternity. And the sign-bearing, sun-drenched beggar should have known to spruce up and wear seersucker after Memorial Day, especially north of Central.
But banning panhandlers from busy intersections along Gandy, U.S 19, Fourth Street and other main thoroughfares only flushes them out of retail centers and into neighborhoods.
Patricia Brady, 79, a longtime newspaper hawker, said it best as she commented that she didn't "know what happened to liberty." It seems to have been hijacked by a council that not long ago gave away a public sidewalk in the pursuit of BayWalk's happiness.
Residents must now await the fallout of the enforcement of this new ordinance, which is set to take effect June 13. On Friday, George Rahdert, legal counsel for the St. Petersburg Times, said he was going to file a lawsuit challenging the ban.
In the meantime, consider the signs coming soon to a flower bed near you: Will Work For Food.
Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor/community news. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8874.