FLINT TWP. — It would become illegal to give or receive money from a vehicle in traffic under a proposed ordinance under discussion by an advisory committee formed to find solutions to the township’s street beggar problem.
The committee was formed last month after objections were raised to a proposed panhandling ordinance amendment that passed first reading in early July. Some did not like the ordinance because it would place a blanket ban on street begging that also affects charities like the Old Newsboys annual Christmas drive for children.
Others, including residents and business owners, support the ordinance because they think an increasing number of street beggars makes the township look bad and frightens away customers and visitors.
The committee was established to come up with a plan that works for everyone. They held a public hearing on Sept. 10 to take public comment and met again Sept. 17 with the township attorney and police chief to look over the legal side of things
In the latest development, township attorney Peter Goodstein suggested not passing the previously proposed ordinance and replacing it with a new one he drafted and distributed to committee members.
The newly worded ordinance is framed strictly as a safety issue, thus avoiding legal questions about inhibiting freedom of speech.
One important detail to surface is that an existing state Motor Vehicle Code already bans impeding or interfering with vehicles on public streets, which technically means that groups that have been conducting street campaigns for many years have done so illegally.
One suggestion was to lift the street ban for one day each year to permit charities to conduct their drives. Goodstein said township police have looked the other way over the years, but township officials cannot knowingly give these groups permission to break the law.
Suggestions were made about ways legitimate charities could continue to legally conduct their annual street drives. One suggestion was to direct traffic off the road into nearby parking lots.
Goodstein noted that the newest proposed ordinance does not ban street beggars from holding signs or in any way limit free speech. It simply states that money or anything else cannot be handed to or passed from a vehicle that is in traffic.
A second part of the ordinance is designed to empower township code enforcement officers to ticket anyone seen violating the law. The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to refuse to identify oneself to a code enforcement officer. It already is illegal to fail to identify oneself to a police officer. A police officer would be called in to back up the code enforcement officer, when needed.
The ordinance makes the violation a civil infraction rather than a criminal offense. Anyone ticketed would be required to make a court appearance. But if they fail to show up, then the civil infraction would become a misdemeanor offense carrying a higher penalty, Goodstein said.
He said he substituted new ordinance language because he was not certain the initial one would stand up if legally challenged, though it was based on a Kent County ordinance that already has withstood a legal challenge.
Jerry Preston, advisory committee chairperson, said a lot of information had been given to them to digest and suggested postponing further deliberation until their next meeting at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 1. A second follow up meeting was scheduled for the same time on Oct. 8. The committee have been asked to come up with a recommendation to the township board.
The advisory committee also spent time discussing ways to provide information to street beggars and homeless people about places they can go for help.
Police Chief George Sippert said his officers would enforce whatever law is established by the township board. But he said it would be enforced without discrimination across the board.
He also stressed safety concerns. Many police officers have been hurt or killed while standing in traffic, even though they were wearing brightly colored safety vests, he said Some charity workers also wear the vests but it is fortunate that so far no one has been hurt, he said.