Decision still pending on panhandling law

FLINT TWP. — The township’s long awaited panhandling ordinance was expected to be discussed at the Dec. 1 board meeting but budget matters took priority.

But Township Supervisor Karyn Miller said the proposal will likely be on the board’s agenda for a first reading at the Dec. 15 meeting, possibly moving toward adoption in early January.

Essentially, the controversial ordinance seeks to curb the township’s street begging problem by prohibiting money or anything else from being passed to or from a vehicle in traffic. An existing state law – the Michigan Vehicle Code – already prohibits blocking or impeding traffic flow on public roads, without permission. That also applies to charitable groups with a longstanding history of standing in the street to gather donations.

Miller has said that the proposed ordinance specifically targets safety matters and not freedom of speech. Federal and state courts have ruled that street begging is a form of freedom of speech and that any ordinance pertaining to it must be equally applied to all street soliciting, not just panhandling.

The township’s proposed ordinance is different than one that passed first reading at a board meeting in July that placed restrictions on where panhandlers could stand. That one drew protests from the American Civil Liberties Union and was tabled so that a Begging and Soliciting Committee could be formed to weigh the pros and cons.

After holding a series of meetings and public hearings, the committee recommended scrapping the original ordinance in favor of the one expected to be on the agenda next week. The committee also recommended an amendment that would authorize township code enforcers to request identification from and to ticket anyone seen violating the ordinance.

Township residents and business owners have been vocal about both sides of the issue.

Speaking during public comment at the board’s Dec. 1 meeting, resident Harold Pauley suggested that the board place the panhandling ordinance on a ballot and let voters decide, sim- ilar to how voters were asked to decide to support a public safety millage or face layoffs of police and fire employees.

“Why is the board so intent on dealing with a few people standing at the roadside …when you have not taken a position for instance on being the third worst crime municipality in the state?”

Pauley asked, quoting a statistic used to promote the public safety millage. Mike Gordon, a business owner and resident, asked for clarification on fines up to $500 that would be imposed on violators of the proposed ordinance.

“Five hundred dollars seems high for a simple act,” he said. He also asked if the recipient and the donor would both be fined.

Miller said that fines up to $500 is the amount imposed for civil infractions. Tracey Tucker, township building director who heads up code enforcement, said the actual amount of the fine would be determined by a judge.

Township Attorney Peter Goodstein said at a panhandling committee meeting that panhandling ordinance violators would be ticketed, not arrested. But failure to show up for the court date could turn the civil infraction into a misdemeanor. That can lead to a warrant being issued and further legal troubles.

An unidentified resident who spoke during public comment spoke against the proposed ordinance. She said her family regularly donates to street beggars and encourages their children to do so. She advocated finding ways to improve the lives of street beggars, instead of passing laws to impede them.

“They would not be out there if there were other ways to get the help they need,” she said.

Miller said that providing information on places to get help was also recommended by the Begging and Soliciting Committee. The United Way is helping to create a resource card for code enforcement officers to distribute to panhandlers, she said.

“It is not our intention to turn our backs on people in need but when we get a lot of complaints (about street begging) something needs to be done,” she said.

Kevin Stiff, a township business owner and resident, suggested that people who think panhandlers are needy should spend some time observing them.

“They are just laughing at you,’’ he said.

Karen Klanseck, who served on the Begging and Soliciting Committee, said many panhandlers are addicts and drunks.

“You are supporting their habits,” she said.

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