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NEW: Committees Send Panhandling Ordinances to Council for Vote

Friday, January 04, 2013

 

Worcester City Councilors voted to send two ordinances dealing with aggressive panhandling and pedestrians in public right of ways to the full Council for a vote during a joint meeting of the Municipal Operations and the Public Health & Human Services committees on Thursday.

More than 30 members of the public were in attendance and many spoke both for and against the proposed ordinances. ACLU Central Mass Field Director Chris Robarge cited numerous legal precedents that saw ordinances seeking to curb or ban panhandling overturned in court and cautioned the committees that the road to banning free speech was detrimental to civil liberties and fraught with legal peril.

Christopher Horton, of the Worcester Unemployment Action Group, told councilors that the real issue is not banning or restricting panhandling, but finding ways to provide jobs and support for the ranks of unemployed residents, which are already large and growing larger.

"What we need to be doing is all coming together around serious solutions to a very serious crisis," he said.

While many took issue with any attempt by the city to ban panhandling, City Solicitor David Moore explained that the ordinance in question would not ban such activity. The ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling would focus on the behavior, not the solicitation itself.

"We think it comes under the category of regulation behavior instead of speech," Moore said.

According to the City Solicitor, nothing in the ordinance prohibits people from walking down the sidewalk and asking for money. In addition, the ordinance relative to pedestrian safety does not engage with First Amendment activities at all, but merely makes it illegal for an individual to be in the roadway or on a median after a police officer has told him or her to move and contains an element of discretion on the part of authorities.

On the Public Health & Human Services Committee, At-Large Councilor and Chair Konstantina Lukes voted in favor of the ordinances, as did District 1 Councilor Anthony Economou. District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera voted against the ordinances, saying she was frustrated that a more prolonged outreach program was not pursued before resorting to an ordinance that fails to address the root problems. Rivera urged officials to continue conversations surrounding the issues of homelessness, poverty, mental health and substance abuse that are intimately tied to panhandling with the city's Division of Public Health at the table.

On the Municipal Operations Committee, At-Large Councilor and Chair Michael Germain, District 5 Councilor William Eddy and Lukes all voted in favor of the ordinances.

The two ordinances will appear on the City Council agenda for the January 15 meeting. 

 

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