Twp. board holds off on panhandling ordinance

FLINT TWP. — A proposed ordinance that would ban all soliciting in the street, including by charities, has been postponed.

The controversial move quietly passed first reading on July 7 in a six to one vote, with only Clerk Kim Courts opposing.

But a near capacity crowd attended the board’s August 11 meeting to voice opinions before the board completed second reading and adoption.

Most of about 18 people who spoke during public comment were against the ordinance. Those included, Chris Hamilton, executive director of the Olds Newsboys of Flint, which is known for its annual one-day collection in the streets to raise funds to provide Christmas gifts for needy children. Hamilton said half of the organization’s annual budget comes from that collection.

Others, including a man dressed as Santa Claus, spoke of their work for Old Newsboys or shared memories of Christmas boxes from the organization.

Also weighing in were representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union which backed a legal challenge in 2012 leading to a U.S. District Court ruling that classified street begging as a form of freedom of speech. The court ruled that street beggars cannot be discriminated against while others, notably organized charities, are allowed to conduct street campaigns.

After two years of watching a noticeable increase of panhandlers on township street corners and hearing mounting complaints from residents and business owners, the township board asked Attorney Peter Goodstein to try to find a legal way to address the problem.

Goodstein proposed an ordinance based on one already enacted by the city of Kentwood, near Grand Rapids in Kent County, that already has withstood a court challenge in 2013.

A Kent County Circuit Judge ruled that Kentwood’s ordinance “applies to all solicitation, regardless of the message or the recipient, and it is reasonable and necessary manner of regulating traffic for the safety of motor vehicle operators, passengers and pedestrians.”

Kentwood is one of several municipalities in western Michigan that have passed an ordinance similar to what Flint Township proposed.

Flint Township would have been the first municipality in Genesee County to pass the street begging ban but others, notably the City of Burton, are considering it.

The Flint Township Board backed away from its ordinance after receiving a late afternoon letter from the Greater Flint ACLU.

Among objections in defense of poor people, the letter raised questions about wording in the ordinance that could be interpreted as discriminatory.

Greg Gibbs, chair of the Flint ACLU, said if the ordinance passed, to enforce it, the township police would have to be prepared to prosecute Santa Claus, Old Newsboys and anyone soliciting in the street.

Trustee Frank Kasle initially motioned to have the proposed ordinance removed from the agenda but was voted down.

After taking public comment, ultimately the board followed the advice of Goodstein to put off a decision to allow time to deliberate on points made in the ACLU letter.

As part of its postponement motion, the board approved setting up a committee made up of interested parties including residents, business owners and charities, to discuss alternative ways to deal with the problem.

Township Supervisor Karyn Miller said the committee’s recommendation could be brought before the board at its next meeting, Sept. 2.

County Clerk John Gleason and United Way Executive Director Jamie Gaskin were among those speaking against the proposed ordinance.

William Newsom was among township residents who spoke in favor of the ordinance. He drew applause after saying that he was tired of outsiders coming into Flint Township to try to influence local decisions.

People who live in Flint Township are the ones who have to deal with the panhandling problem on a daily basis while driving around, he said.

The ordinance is not designed to put Santa out of work or stop the Old Newsboys from collecting money in parking lots, for example, he said.

He mentioned other communities that have already passed a similar ordinance in the best interest of its residents and business owners.

“Please think about what the residents want and not what affects people outside of Flint Township,’’ he urged board members.

Other supportive speakers called the street soliciting ban more of a public safety issue than one seeking to harm charities. Some speakers said they knew of panhandlers who turn down jobs offered to them as a means to earn money because they prefer begging on the street.

One speaker said more public education is needed to persuade people to stop giving money to street beggars so the problem would solve itself because they would go away.

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