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Pensacola’s Downtown Improvement Board wants to “move forward” after Thursday’s controversial city council vote to ban panhandling in much of the city’s downtown core.

The DIB, established in 1972, is a semi-independent city agency and taxing authority which oversees 44 blocks of downtown Pensacola, as well as parking management and other activities. The five-member board strongly supported the panhandling ban, which was sponsored by Mayor Ashton Hayward and City Council President Brian Spencer.

A controversial ordinance which bans panhandling in downtown Pensacola was cosponsored by City Council President Brian Spencer, left, and Mayor Ashton Hayward, right. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

Council members narrowly adopted the ordinance on a 4-3 vote at Thursday’s city council meeting. A statement issued by the DIB Friday says the board is “anticipating a smooth transition and looking ahead to a safer district for residents and visitors.”

The new law will make it illegal for anyone to ask for a donation — either verbally or by holding up a sign — within the newly-established “Downtown Visitors District,” roughly defined as two blocks on either side of Palafox Street from Wright Street south to the bay. In addition to panhandlers, street performers and charitable organizations would also be barred from asking for donations. There won’t be any criminal penalties for violations of the new ordinance; instead, violators will be issued civil citations and fined.

“We’re grateful for City’s leadership and thoughtful consideration of this ordinance,” said DIB Executive Director Curt Morse. “Though some tried to position it as an attack on homelessness, this ordinance is squarely focused on protecting people from being harassed and intimidated by behavior that is unwanted and often aggressive.”

The controversial ban will go into effect May 18. DIB officials say they will work with the Pensacola Police Department to educate business owners and others about the ordinance, while helping to steer panhandlers towards the assistance available through local organizations.

The ACLU of Florida has vocally opposed the ordinance and is currently evaluating a potential legal challenge.

“The legal precedent is overwhelming,” said regional director Sara Latshaw on Thursday, who cited a dozen cities where similar ordinances have been struck down by courts. “This ordinance is unconstitutional.”

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