Pensacola city council members on Thursday narrowly granted final approval to a controversial ordinance which would ban panhandling throughout much of the city’s downtown core.
The vote was 4-3, with city council president Brian Spencer and council members Andy Terhaar, Larry B. Johnson, and Jewel Cannada-Wynn voting in support of the ordinance. Council members P.C. Wu, Sherri Myers, and Gerald Wingate voted no.
The ordinance, sponsored by Spencer and Mayor Ashton Hayward, 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. 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.
The ACLU of Florida has vocally opposed the ordinance, which is supported by both the Downtown Improvement Board and Greater Pensacola Chamber.
The ordinance will become law next week, after the expiration of the five-day window during which the mayor can veto ordinances.
“We have again and again warned the city council that this law is a constitutionally suspect attack on the rights of the community’s neediest members,” said ACLU staff attorney Jacqueline Azis prior to the vote. “The courts have repeatedly spoken on this issue when it has been tried elsewhere: cities cannot ban certain kinds of speech just because hearing it makes some people uncomfortable.”
“The legal precedent is overwhelming,” said ACLU regional director Sara Latshaw. “This ordinance is unconstitutional.”
Councilwoman Sherri Myers agreed.
“Since the last council meeting, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of legal research on this, and it’s my opinion that this ordinance is unconstitutional, and it will be held as unconstitutional if challenged,” Myers said.
Similar ordinances adopted by at least a dozen cities have been struck down by courts in recent years. Several cities, including Worcester, Mass., Grand Junction, Colo., and Portland, Me., have been ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
“This vote it not about ending panhandling downtown,” Latshaw said. “This ordinance won’t do that. What it will do, however, is expose the city to litigation and place potentially hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars at risk.”
The city council previously adopted an ordinance addressing aggressive panhandling in 2013. That law — which has not been actively enforced — prohibits panhandling near major intersections, ATMs, and sidewalk cafés, among other areas.
Downtown Improvement Board officials have discussed bringing forward additional legislation which could allow street performers under limited circumstances.