Tampa City Council nears approving six day panhandlng ban

The first would be to ban panhandling, with the exception of newspaper sales. A second option would be a six-day ban that would allow for Sunday newspaper sales, similar to restrictions approved in late June by Pasco County commissioners.

The third proposal came up most recently - that would allow union-related activities on the city's roadways to protest or hand out leaflets to passing motorists, as well as newspaper hawkers (this would allow for copies of the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin to be sold during the week).

Council members then opted to support a combination of options two and three.

All six members emphasized during the discussion that they had big hearts and were not supportive of penalizing people who do panhandle, but issues of safety was their stated major concern.

Council man Harry Cohen said that in his opinion the situation on Tampa's streets is "getting out of control," and listed three different reasons why. One, he said, was the plummeting economy, the second was the fact that panhandling has been banned in virtually all local governments surrounding the city, and lastly, with cold weather coming, he feared more people from the northeast could be entering Tampa and exacerbate the homeless problem, which all observers say is the worst it has ever been in the Tampa/Hillsborough County region.

Never explicitly mentioned but hovering underneath the discussion is the reality that in less than a year the Republican National Convention will be coming to Tampa, and no doubt business leaders and other officials are concerned that the homeless could still be an issue that could mar the city's image (though at one point Council member Lisa Montelione emphasized that was the last thing the council was concerned with).

Council Chair Mulhern has always expressed discomfort about the issue from the start, saying she's never felt personally in peril because of those who solicit money on street intersections. But at one point earlier this year, she did support a partial ban on the issue.

But not on Thursday. Mulhern said she could not vote to make something illegal "based on the image," of the downtrodden soliciting for money. She said that might be the concern of the Chamber of Commerce, but it shouldn't be local lawmakers.

"I worry about us criminalizing charity, and poverty….I think there’s been a case made, not strong enough for me," she told her colleagues, indicating that they would need to agree amongst themselves about what type of ban they wanted to support, since she would not be a part of it.

Previously Council member Frank Reddick has been a solid "no" on the issue of panhandling, as he was one of just two people running for office this year that never supported at any time some version of a ban. But his main concern - for the people who sell the city's African-American community paper, the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, was addressed with the provision that will carve out an exception for newspaper hawkers.

For a full hour before the council discussed the issue, members of the public both pro and con addressed the board. Susan Long, who ran for a City Council and lost against Mary Mulhern this year based basically on her opposition to panhandling, said the city was giving $3 million to the Tampa Sports Authority, and thus they should be able to find funding to help the homeless. But she said the ban was still very much needed.

After a public debate that has lasted over a year, the Tampa City Council today finally has come one step closer to banning panhandling - while making exceptions for Sundays, as well as allowing for an exception for people who sell newspapers or do political leafleting.

The vote was 5-1, with acting Council Chair Mary Mulhern dissenting (Chairman Charlie Miranda is recovering from an illness and was not present).

Today's action came at a workshop, which means that it will be voted on again on September 22.

The actual language of the ordinance will be written by the City's Legal Department, because it was a hybrid of two specific options presented as the discussion began by attorney Rebecca Kert, who presented three different proposals to the council

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