[updated: The Pensacola City Council has delayed this issue until April]
Pensacola city officials will consider this week the option of creating a special district downtown, in order to then bar panhandlers from that area. Citing public safety concerns and a need to safeguard the city’s economic interests, officials appear to be preparing to tip-toe past First Amendment issues and pass an ordinance disallowing panhandling in the downtown core and outlining financial penalties for such activity.
Members of the Pensacola City Council will discuss the issue during their agenda review conference March 6. The proposed ordinance — being forwarded by Council President Brian Spencer and Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward — will then receive a first reading during the body’s regular meeting Thursday evening.
While the downtown business community, notably the Down Improvement Board, is supportive of the city’s efforts, other groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northwest Florida, have raised concerns about overreach.
The proposed ordinance carves out downtown’s core — basically Palafox and its surrounding blockage, running from Wright Street to the Pensacola Bay — and names it the Downtown’s Visitors’ District. It targets the “solicitation of donations” within the district, with the law’s rationale leaning on the assertion that “panhandlers often disrupt the daily activities that occur at outdoor cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, entertainment venues and other downtown commercial establishments by disrupting business and physically approaching, harassing, or intimidating residents, visitors, and tourists in places where it is difficult or not possible to exercise the right to decline to listen to them or avoid their requests.”
The city also notes in the ordinance that downtown business owners, as well as residents and visitors have complained about panhandling activities. It warns that taking steps to rid the area of such activity is paramount to downtown’s economic viability and to do otherwise would jeopardize public and private efforts to revive “a deteriorated partially vacant commercial area into its current vibrant and popular resident, visitor and tourist venue.”
For the purpose of the ordinance, “solicitation of funds” is defined thus: “any request made in person on a street, sidewalk or public right-of-way within the Downtown Visitors’ District, for an immediate donation of money or other thing of value, including the purchase of an item or service for an amount far exceeding its value, under circumstances where a reasonable person would understand that the purchase is a donation, whether such solicitation is accomplished verbally, passively or through any manner of signage.”
If an individual is cited, a first-time penalty of $50 is levied. The fine doubles with each additional citation, with a ceiling of $400 for the fourth and all additional citations.
This is not the first time city officials have targeted panhandlers, or by critics’ estimation, the poor and homeless. And as with past endeavors, concerns of targeting a specific group of people, as well as infringing on First Amendment Rights, are being raised.
In the ordinance currently being proposed, the city addresses such concerns by recognizing that “panhandling is entitled to First Amendment protection and its regulation must be content neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest while leaving open alternative channels of communication” and concludes that the ordinance will not impede such rights because the city “has a significant governmental interest” in the matter and “there are ample alternative venues for such expressive activities outside the Downtown Visitors‘ District.”
Indeed, the proposed ordinance does appear to have been cleaned up from its previous incarnation last fall. At that time, the district was dubbed the Palafox-Seville-Maritime Park Commercial Corridor, and the ordinance targeted not only panhandling, but also acts that might be considered protected, such as sitting or lying on the sidewalk, or taking up more than one seat on a public bench.
The more recent version has dialed its target back to the “solicitation of donations,” but does manage to broaden the definition enough to include any request for “an immediate donation of money or other thing of value, including the purchase of an item or service for an amount far exceeding its value, under circumstances where a reasonable person would understand that the purchase is a donation.”
City Council will discuss this proposed ordinance first at its agenda review session, March 6, beginning at 3:30 p.m. at Pensacola City Hall, before conducting a first public hearing during the council’s 5:30 p.m. meeting Thursday.
To read more about this issue, see “Pensacola’s Downtown Scrub Down.”
To read DIB Chairman dib-loitering-and-panhandling-request-letter.