Pensacola city council members on Thursday moved to postpone a vote on a controversial proposal which would have barred panhandlers and other donation-seekers from much of the city’s downtown core.
After more than an hour of discussion and public input, city councilman Gerald Wingate made a motion to table the issue until the council’s April meeting. The council approved that motion unanimously after another half-hour of debate.
The proposed ordinance, cosponsored by Mayor Ashton Hayward and City Council President Brian Spencer, would ban any person from asking for donations — either verbally or using a sign — within a “Downtown Visitor’s District,” roughly encompassing the area south of Wright Street within two blocks on either side of Palafox Street. In addition to panhandlers, street performers and charities would also be barred from asking for donations.
Violators of the ordinance would be issued civil citations and fined. First offenses would come with a $50 fine, with the fines doubling on subsequent citations, first to $100, then to $200, and finally to $400 on fourth and further offenses.
Public speakers at the meeting ran about 2-to-1 against the ordinance, with most of the pro-ordinance speakers hailing from organizations which have endorsed the panhandling ban, including the Downtown Improvement Board and Greater Pensacola Chamber.
Downtown officials says there’s been an “alarming increase” in the amount of soliciting, begging, and panhandling taking place along downtown streets and sidewalks. “The proposed ordinance is not designed to stop street performers or target the homeless, but to protect those who live, work and visit downtown Pensacola from harassment and intimidation associated with panhandling,” DIB executive director Curt Morse said earlier this week.
In discussions before the item was tabled, council members appeared divided on the issue, with even supporters of the ordinance objecting to parts of the legislation. Councilman Andy Terhaar said he supported the spirit of the ban, but was reluctant to support an enforcement mechanism which included fines or arrests. Councilman P.C. Wu said he “couldn’t understand the logic” of issuing fines to those asking for money in the first place. Wu also noted that he has served as a bellringer for the Salvation Army, which would be prohibited from collection donations downtown if the ordinance is passed.
Opponents of the proposed ban have argued that the ordinance is anti-homeless and possibly unconstitutional.
“This is another attempt of the Pensacola City Council to wield its enforcement powers to target poor and homeless persons for discriminatory and fundamentally unfair treatment,” said Sara Latshaw, North Florida Director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Requests for donations, whether made by an organized charity or the humblest of beggars, constitute expression protected by the First Amendment. The City is on constitutionally shaky ground banning solicitation in the entire downtown area.”