St. Pete City Council votes to ban all money collecting on road medians

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St. Petersburg's unending war on the homeless may have claimed some (more) innocent victims: the 300 or so families in Pinellas County who depend on the Muscular Dystrophy Association for a little help.

The St. Pete City Council, at the urging of Mayor Rick Baker, passed an ordinance last week outlawing people standing in the medians of roads and streets to collect money — a move widely seen as another attempt to curb the city's growing homeless problem. Other than stopping temporarily to cross the street or being part of a road construction project, it is now illegal simply to stand in the median, even if you are doing nothing.

If you think it sounds like a violation of some kind of rights, you would not be the only one. The St. Petersburg Times sent a handful of execs and lawyers to the council meeting on Oct. 2 in an attempt to keep selling newspapers in the median under the First Amendment. Losing that right would cost the company $400,000 a year, it said in its own news coverage of the vote.

But more heartbreaking than the plight of the state's largest newspaper, however, was what the median ban will do to locals with muscular dystrophy. St. Petersburg firefighters collected $25,000 for MDA in its median "boot drive" in May, enough to send 300 children with MD to a special camp. Studies by the MDA show a 90 percent drop-off in collections if firefighters have to stand on the sidewalk vs. being in the median, leaving the future of the boot drive in doubt.

The council members who voted for the median ban (only Wengay Newton voted against it) squirmed around in their seats a bit. "This is a really tough decision," Councilman Bill Dudley said. Of course, their empathy was tempered a bit by the fact that three of the offending councilmen spoke with blue-dyed Rayhawks cut into their hair on the day of the baseball team's first playoff game.

After the vote, St. Petersburg firefighter union Vice President Rick Pauley didn't know what his troops will do next May when the boot drive comes around.

"I don't want to go back to 320 firefighters and tell them what has happened here today," he said.

MDA local program coordinator Amber Saltzman added, "And I don't want to go back to 300 families and tell them."

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