Facing an emotional and overflow crowd, the Spokane City Council composes a “compromise” ordinance to crack down on downtown panhandling.
After more than two hours of emotional testimony in a packed council chamber, the Spokane City Council voted 6-1 Monday night to approve a new ordinance that should make it harder for panhandlers to collect money from motorists in downtown Spokane.
The passage of the ordinance was a legislative victory for councilman Mike Allen. But it didn’t come as easy as the lop-sided vote indicated, nor did it come without raw and clearly unsettling public debate about whether Spokane’s leaders were bowing to wealthy downtown business interests at the expense of the poor.
It’s been clear since early July that the Downtown Spokane Partnership and other business groups were prodding Allen and the council to do something to reduce the number of sign-carrying panhandlers plying the thoroughfares between Interstate-90 and the downtown central business district. Although the City already had ordinances that allow the police to take action against aggressive solicitors and/or those impeding traffic, the new ordinance, as proposed and passed Monday night, will now make it unlawful for a solicitor to step into the street to collect a donation.
The was more than one problem with the direction the new ordinance was headed, and the evidence for that was the sea of unhappy faces, spilling back into the Chase Gallery, that greeted the council when it arrived for its 6 p.m. legislative session.
Many were there to push back on what they perceived as an unwarranted attack on poor people. But most were there because they have been involved and/or directly helped by organizations like the Spokane Guild School who do major fundraisers that involve collecting coins and small bills from motorists. (The Guild School is devoted to helping children and the families of children with neuromuscular disabilities.) As Allen explained when he introduced the ordinance, he and the City’s lawyers struggled to find an ordinance they could pass that could also survive possible constitutional challenges. Toward that end, Allen had been working with Council President Ben Stuckart and Center for Justice lawyer and executive director Rick Eichstaedt (among others) to frame an ordinance that wouldn’t set up a double standard—one for charities like the Guild School and another for individuals seeking money for themselves.
The “compromise” ordinance that resulted was unveiled Monday evening as a replacement for the ordinance on the agenda that had brought such a discontented crowd into the hall. Under the “compromise” the strict prohibitions against going into the street to collect donations will only apply on arterials and major thoroughfares near downtown. Specifically, the box-like perimeter will extend from Boone Avenue on the north, to 7th Avenue on the south, the Maple/Ash corridor on the west, and Hamilton Street to the east. When the lead spokespersons for The Guild School testified that the “compromise” Allen and Stuckart had worked out was one they could support, much—but not all—of the angst in the room began to evaporate. After a spokesperson for Sen. Lisa Brown read an eloquent statement supporting the constitutional free speech rights of the poor, there was widespread applause in the room. The outburst caused Stuckart to gavel the proceedings to a halt for a short break and to warn against further demonstrations.
“I’m not going to take a position tonight on whether or not the council should adopt this,” Eichstaedt said when his turn came to address the council. “What I do want to speak to are the Constitutional issues.”
Eichstaedt then reiterated that both federal and state courts “have recognized the solicitation, charitable solicitation, panhandling, is speech. And in regards to panhandling, as long as it is conducted peacefully, it’s protected by the 1st Amendment. In fact a court in 1993 said: ‘the presence of an unkempt or disheveled person holding out his or her hand, or a cup, to receive a donation itself conveys a message of support, of need, or assistance. We see little difference between those who solicit for organized charities and those who solicit for themselves in regard to the message conveyed. The former are communicating the needs of others, while the other are communicating their personal needs. Both solicit the charity of others. This distinction is not significant for first amendment purposes.’”
What that meant, Eichstaedt explained, is that if a government like Spokane chooses to regulate speech, it has to do so in a way that is content neutral.
To that extent, Eichstaedt said, the compromise proposed and adopted Monday night resolved important constitutional concerns.
When the vote came, only councilman Mike Fagan opposed the new ordinance, incorporating the “compromise” language. Fagan expressed the concern, conveyed by the Spokane Police Department, that the new “box” ordinance essentially turns a blind eye to dangerous soliciting in other parts of the city.
In other council action Monday night, the council voted 6-1 to approve an emergency budget ordinance that will extend the contract of police Ombudsman Tim Burns, at least until the end of the year. Facing a resolution that would have criticized him for terminating Burns’s employment this month, Mayor David Condon announced earlier today he favored a short extension. Jon Snyder cast the lone dissenting vote after he gave an impassioned statement in support of Burns and advocated extending his contract for another three years. Burns was not at the meeting, however, and it’s not yet clear that he is willing to stay on as the police Ombudsman, despite the Mayor’s statement and the council’s vote.
—Tim Connor for the Center for Justice.