Panhandling law stands

Alderwoman Dorothy Crawford told other members of the Vandalia City Council on Monday that she realized after voting with them two weeks ago to OK a new panhandling ordinance that she made a mistake.
But the other seven aldermen declined her request to reconsider the approval of that ordinance.
Crawford asked to have the ordinance voted on again, saying that after it was approved at the June 1 meeting, and after talking to some individuals, she arrived at the thinking that the ordinance “was not given the discussion it really warranted.”
Crawford said she now believes that the ordinance “makes poverty a crime,” that it does not address the majority of problems that it sought to address and that she believes the city cannot “tell people where they can and cannot stand, and what they can and cannot say when they are standing.”
That ordinance, drafted at the request of Police Chief Jeff Ray after he received a number of complaints about panhandlers at some city intersections, states, “No person shall beg or solicit alms within the city limits except when acting as a representative of a recognized charitable organization.”
Ray said, “What we got the most complaints about we had no means to deal with.”
Crawford argued that “there are people who are genuinely destitute. We should not be making them criminals; we should be telling them where they can go for help.”
Alderman B. John Clark said that not all of those begging for money are actually down on their luck. “How do we know they are destitute?”
Ray told the council that when officers are asked to respond to a report of panhandling, they let the individuals know that they can get help from such entities as the Ministerial Alliance.
Alderman Jerry Swarm told Crawford that a number of organizations provide help for people in need, including the Ministerial Alliance and Salvation Army, as well as CEFS Economic Opportunity.
Local residents Dennis Shuckhart and Linda Kinney supported Crawford, saying that some of the individuals who are panhandling have mental issues. “They have issues that prevent them from getting help.”
Like Crawford, Shuckhart complained that the ordinance makes poverty a criminal activity. He also said that the city’s action was “focused on two people … and is punishing others.”
But Ryan Connor of the city’s legal counsel said that the ordinance wording is “content neutral,” means that it’s non-discriminatory, and that a violation of the ordinance “is not criminal in nature; it’s a civil issue.”
Connor said the ordinance was drafted similar to those in other towns, ones that have withstood constitutional challenges, and that Vandalia’s law “is the most-effective and lawful way to have a tool to deal with a problem they are addressing.”
Ray added that it only becomes a criminal offense when individuals refuse to move on when asked by police to do so or become aggressive toward an officer.
He said that when talking to the city’s legal counsel about drafting a panhandling ordinance, he expressed the concern of having to arrest individuals who don’t have the money to pay fines.
Near the end of the discussion on the issue, Crawford said she realized that her request to reconsider the approval of the ordinance was not going to be granted, because of “people up here (at the council table) chuckling and chortling.”
Clark said that while he understood concerns about the ordinance, “The job of this council is to fulfill the wills of the general public.”
Crawford made a motion to reconsider action on the ordinance, but the matter died for lack of a second.

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