Tampa City Council has 2 options on panhandling: both would allow for newspaper sales

Of the three motions, the only negative votes came on the Jacksonville model, where both Yolie Capin and Lisa Montelione voted no.

The matter is of such importance to Mayor Bob Buckhorn that he appeared at the beginning of Thursday's meeting and spoke briefly to the council. Buckhorn campaigned this past winter on a platform of having a complete ban in Tampa, but the city charter dictates that the council must come up with an ordinance. Buckhorn admitted that there was no single solution to the larger problem of homelessness, but "whatever compromise you come up with, something is better than nothing."

In recent years, various local governments, from Hillsborough County to St. Petersburg to Pasco County have now passed or are in the process of passing ordinances clamping down on panhandling, which some city officials believe has exacerbated the problem in Tampa, since it's still legal for those who have to resort to begging for money to survive to do so.

Supporters of such a ban have insisted that the number one factor in passing a measure is public safety, yet those who have resisted such a proposal, such as councilwoman Mary Mulhern and now Frank Reddick, disputed that notion on Thursday, saying there were far more dangerous issues and places in Tampa than with those who are soliciting on public streets.

John Bennett, Assistant Chief of Operations for the Tampa Police Department, told the council that on average since 2010, his department receives three calls a day and makes one arrest a day dealing with the panhandling issue.

Over the past week (as CL has been reporting) Tampa officials have been eying what took place in Pasco County, where the commission there has shown initial support for a six-day ban that would allow newspaper hawkers to do their business on Sundays. The County Attorney there was able to produce statistics demonstrating a considerable reduction of traffic and pedestrian accidents on Sunday, which they believe would survive legal scrutiny.

But when some council members challenged Tampa city attorneys Jim Shimberg and Rebecca Kert about the Pasco proposal, neither could say with certainty if that proposed ordinance is legally sound, because it hasn't been approved yet, and hasn't been challenged in court.

But the move by Pasco county attorneys showed more flexibility than the former city attorney of Tampa, Chip Fletcher, ever allowed. As Councilwoman Yolie Capin mentioned (several times) at today's meeting, she had earlier proposed a ban with an exemption on weekends, and was struck down by Fletcher, who said he didn't believe it would survive a court challenge.

But Shinberg and Kert appear not to share that sentiment. So once it appeared as if there might be some momentum for a Pasco like law, councilman Frank Reddick indicated that would be unfair to another Tampa newspaper that distributes much of its product by selling on the streets - that being the black newspaper the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, which published on Tuesdays and Fridays.

"I think it's a selfish move by the Times and Tribune," Reddick said of two attorneys who spoke up at the public hearing portion of the workshop to advocate a six day ban. "You have young African-American kids in some of the highest crime rate areas, earning a living...and you want to deny them an opportunity?" He added that unless support was shown for those who sell that paper, he would not support any ban.

That's when Councilman Harry Cohen, who called months ago for the workshop, to unveil his plan, which surprised some of his colleagues.

Cohen said his idea was to push for a complete ban to match up with what Hillsborough County has in place, but then pass an exemption for the selling of newspapers, something he said is done in Jacksonville. He then pivoted to say that though could be considered a special exemption, there is a great deference to freedom of speech put in the constitution, and government had a vested interest in a robust press. And then he spoke up in favor of the newspaper industry as a whole, saying, "newspapers are in crises, they're laying off employees. If they go out of business, it will be a terrible thing for the community."

Cohen added that he realized that a panhandling ban was no solution to the bigger crises of the economy and unemployment, but he said allowing panhandling to continue was not going to enhance or stimulate the locate economy. "We need to separate these issues in a comprehensive way, " he said.

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern has been for the most part a steadfast critic of any ban, though at one point earlier this year she voted for a compromise of sorts to place a ban on certain roads. She said that it was incumbent to start finding ways of using federal funds that the city gets for Community Development Block Grants and other sources as a a way to begin to addressing the crises in the local economy when it comes to those are are homeless.

She also challenged Mayor Buckhorn directly for him to lobby the business community to help fund affordable housing, the crux of the problem with the homeless.

Mulhern's call was bold in that neither she nor anyone on council has ever called on the city to address the social service aspect of the problem of the homeless, since Hillsborough County and the state of Florida, not the cities, are the ones responsible for addressing those concerns.

But Hillsborough County has done nothing on this front since the Board of County Commissioners voted down a proposal by Catholic Charities in 2009 to build a "tent city" off of Eastern Hillsborough Avenue.

So after three hours of discussion, the council voted for three different proposals, giving the city's legal department until August 4 to examine a Jacksonville-style panhandling ban that exempts newspaper hawkers; a Pasco County-style panhandling ban that would be in effect for six days, giving Sundays off to newspaper hawkers (and theoretically anybody else); and then for the Buckhorn administration to research accessing funds in the city's budget - as well as asking the business community - to help out in terms of providing more services for the homeless.


The city of Tampa is closer than it ever has been to placing some sort of ban on panhandling in Tampa, though they're hoping to create an exemption for those who sell newspapers in the city.

The issue - for better or worse - dominated the recent elections, specifically at city council forums - with most polls indicating that the public wants to see the issue- and the panhandlers - go away.

So with a new council and mayor, a workshop today brought about two new proposals that the city attorney will research and present back to the council in early August, as well a third regarding helping the homeless.

The first proposal would be a complete, seven day ban, that would exempt those who sell newspapers. A similar ordinance is in place in Jacksonville and has so far has not been challenged by the courts.

Another proposal would be a six day ban, with panhandling legal on Sundays. Such an ordinance would allow the hundreds of hawkers who sell copies of the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times on Sunday to continue to do so, as well as "regular" panhandlers.

And the council voted on a third motion to look at doing something productive in terms of housing the homeless by looking for money to do so - through the city's budget, through Community Development Block Grants, and through the private sector.


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