The Kalispell City Council gave preliminary approval of a new law that would restrict panhandling near street intersections and other sites.
The council lightened regulations originally proposed in ordinance 1729 during a lengthy debate about public safety and social needs on Monday before voting 6-1 in favor of the ordinance in its first reading. Mayor Tammi Fisher and councilors Jim Atkinson, Wayne Saverud, Phil Guiffrida III, Tim Kluesner and Bob Hafferman voted in favor and Randy Kenyon opposed. Councilors Kari Gabriel and Jeff Zauner were absent.
Council will readdress the topic at the July 15 meeting and decide whether to pass the ordinance into law.
The new law would prohibit people from approaching another person to ask for money on a sidewalk or public transportation, unless that person offers a donation. Panhandling would be prohibited anywhere in city limits after sunset or before sunrise. Solicitors would be allowed to passively stand or hold a sign further than 20 feet away from any intersection, as well as a bus stop. The original proposal set the boundary at 50 feet, but councilors agreed that would essentially ban panhandling.
“I don’t want to prevent people from passively standing with a sign,” Fisher, who spearheaded the effort, said. “I do oppose people who are invading others’ space. That happens everyday and all the time in this community.”
The proposed law was not without its vocal opponents, including local attorney Jim Cossitt, who said it discriminates against those who are less fortunate.
“I think it’s more than ridiculous. It’s offensive,” Cossitt said of the ordinance during public comment, adding, “The target of this ordinance are the people in our society who are at the bottom of the ladder.”
Cossitt said the new restrictions would infringe on constitutional rights, such as freedom of assembly and speech.
“If it does get adopted, I’ll be happy to represent anybody who gets cited on pro bono status,” Cossitt said.
A woman, who declined to provide her name, said she was homeless and depended on donations from residents to pay for food and gas.
“I wouldn’t survive if I couldn’t panhandle,” she said.
Yet solicitors can create a public safety issue, according to Guiffrida. He said panhandlers standing near busy intersections create visibility issues, standing in drivers’ lines of sight, and can also lead traffic away from streets where frequent solicitations take place.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to look at it from the standpoint of overall safety.”
Kenyon, though he said he appreciated the boundary reduction from 50 feet to 20 feet, remained adamantly against the new law and said it was “an ordinance looking for a problem.”
“If somebody doesn’t like being panhandled and they think it’s unreasonable, they can call law enforcement for there being disorderly persons,” Kenyon said. “There’s no reason to have all this. This is just ridiculous.”
An anti-loitering law is currently in place but the courts have deemed it unconstitutional, making it ineffective, according to City Attorney Charles Harball.
The new law would repeal the existing legislation and replace it with clearer regulations.
Under the new law, solicitors could receive a misdemeanor for blocking the path of another person or following that person. It would also be against the law for more than one person to panhandle together.
Hafferman described the greater issue of poverty as the elephant in the room, and hoped that the community could address the topic instead of relying on laws to do so.
“We can’t push our problems down the road by an ordinance such as this. Laws don’t make conditions,” Hafferman said. “I’d like to hear somebody come up with a solution for it.”
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