It’s been on the books for less than two weeks, but one Pensacola city council member says it’s time to repeal the controversial downtown panhandling law that’s become the subject of a federal lawsuit.
The ordinance — narrowly approved by council members earlier this month — makes it illegal for anyone to ask for a donation, either verbally or by holding up a sign, within a roughly 40-block section of the city’s downtown. While it was specifically designed to target panhandlers, the law also impacts street musicians and charitable organizations.
The ban drew an almost immediate legal challenge from the ACLU of Florida, which has argued that it’s unconstitutional and infringes on free speech rights. That suit is pending, and city officials have agreed not to enforce the law until the suit is resolved.
Councilwoman Sherri Myers was among those who voted no on the ordinance. Now, she plans to ask the council to roll back the law at their next meeting.
“The federal courts will hold it to be unconstitutional,” Myers said Tuesday. “The hundreds of thousands of dollars we will spend defending the indefensible could be used to help the homeless and poor, including panhandlers.”
Myers has frequently criticized Mayor Ashton Hayward’s spending on outside legal counsel. Hayward’s office has retained the Atlanta-based firm of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore to represent the city in the ACLU lawsuit.
“Other cities that have tried to ban passive panhandling are now turning to positive programs to help panhandlers, such as hiring them to keep city streets clean and to provide other needed services,” Myers added.
The ACLU has successfully overturned similar anti-panhandling laws in other states and is currently involved in legal challenges to similar ordinances in Cleveland, Ohio and Belton, Mo.
City council members will discuss the potential repeal at their June 5 agenda conference meeting. Unless a majority of council members vote to remove the item from the agenda, the first of two votes on a potential repeal would then take place days later at the June 8 regular meeting.
The ordinance was supported by Pensacola’s Downtown Improvement Board, which said that downtown businesses have seen an “alarming increase” in panhandling. DIB chairman John Peacock says that rather than arguing over the legislation, he’d prefer city officials focused their efforts on practical solutions.
“There’s a mountain of evidence that shows panhandling is not constructive,” said Peacock. “Instead of worrying about a specific ordinance, let’s put some effort into getting these people some help.”
Peacock said he hoped Myers would reach out to the DIB, downtown business owners, and county officials to discuss the issue.
“If Councilwoman Myers wants to help come up with other solutions, I’m all in,” Peacock added.
Mayor Hayward’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.