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Panhandlers may soon face restrictions downtown

BY NORA HEATON | APRIL 28, 2010 7:30 AM

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Iowa City panhandlers could soon face more restrictions, barring them from soliciting in certain areas downtown.

An ordinance before the Iowa City City Council, which the council voted 6-1 in favor of during its first reading Tuesday, would expand regulations on panhandling downtown.

The ordinance would prohibit solicitation on the Pedestrian Mall within 20 feet of an ATM and within 10 feet of a building or mobile vendor.

If the council approves the move two more times, the ordinance would also change current regulations to criminalize panhandling within 15 feet of crosswalks or another solicitor.

In hopes of balancing the effect the move would have on the needy, the city would also promote a new program in which out-of-service parking meters would become receptacles for charitable donations. Six human-service agencies in the area would receive the collected funds for distribution as they see necessary.

“Systematically, I think it will create greater change, and that’s what we need to see in this community,” Councilor Regenia Bailey said.

Still, some felt the additional steps did not fully counteract the harm the ordinance would do to cash-strapped solicitors.

“[The ordinance] is in cynical disregard for people who are less fortunate than ourselves,” said Brandon Ross, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in the last election, during public discussion.

“A lot of these people are on the streets humbling themselves before the public — they don’t have any other method,” he said.

Mike Wright, the only councilor to voice dissent on the ordinance, said he agreed with Ross.

“I find this to be a slow whittling-away at constitutional rights in our community,” he said. “I find such actions as this one to be truly mean-spirited and small.”

But the six councilors who supported the ordinance said the parking meter donation system would be more beneficial.

Mayor Matt Hayek said the council discussed other cities’ solicitation regulations. Other communities, such as Denver, have implemented the parking-meter system and experienced apparent success.

Hayek said police stationed downtown will respond to the highest needs of the area, as usual. As with other city violations, officers will have to rely largely on public complaints to enforce the possible solicitation regulations.

Aside from panhandling, the ordinance also restricts smoking within 10 feet of sidewalk cafes outside the Pedestrian Mall and adjusts boundaries and hours of nonsmoking areas to accommodate the Iowa City Farmers’ Market.

The council must complete three readings to pass an ordinance — but councilors may elect to collapse the second and third reading into a single formal meeting, City Clerk Marian Karr said.

The next, and possibly final, vote on the ordinance will take place May 10. If passed, the measure will become effective the following week.

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