Mayor, Democrats face off over panhandling law

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Mayor Greg Ballard is in a showdown with council Democrats over a tougher panhandling law. Mayoral spokesman Marc Lotter is accusing Democrats of "playing politics with public safety."

It has to do with a plan the mayor unveiled at this State of the City address March 8th. It calls for banning any and all panhandling downtown (even just sitting there holding a sign) and limiting the hours it's allowed elsewhere in the city. Yet two months after it was introduced to the council, it's yet to be debated.

"It's sitting there with no committee hearing, no debate, no discussion and we're hearing it's because of political reasons they're not considering it," Lotter said.

Democratic Council Vice President John Barth said, "that's completely untrue. The simple fact is it would be negligent to pass a proposal guaranteed to be litigated and incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost to the city."

Ken Falk with the ACLU of Indiana said if the proposal passes in its current form, it will be challenged.

"We've already been contacted by plaintiffs," he said. "Asking for money is protected by the First Amendment and if you are going to impinge on First Amendment conduct, you must be reasonable and leave open ample opportunities. We would submit banning all panhandling, even passive is neither reasonable nor leaves open ample opportunities."

Lotter dismissed the challenge, saying the Indianapolis ordinance is based on one in Florida that survived a federal court case and appeal.

He said there was a certain urgency as panhandling was having an impact on conventions and tourism. He noted the plan was backed by the chamber and Visit Indy.

"When you're losing conventions and when people aren't coming downtown to visit our great amenities (because of panhandling), that's a real concern," he said.

Barth said there was already an ordinance that addressed "aggressive panhandling."

"We need to start by making sure the laws we have are being enforced...right now, the current law isn't because there aren't enough police on the streets," he said.

Figures from IMPD show they made 54 panhandling arrests in 2012, both downtown and at busy intersections. But an ordinance passed in 2009 meant to address panhandling and other types of solicitation at intersections (selling, donating, advertising, distributing) appears to enforced only sporadically.

Nearly every day, nicely-dressed men work the busy intersection at 38th and Fall Creek. They hold newspapers, moving in and out of traffic, approaching motorists. It wasn't something police tried to stop Wednesday as one drove by and another pulled people over for speeding nearby.

Republican Councilor Michael McQuiillen said such solicitation is clearly prohibited. He said the ordinance he sponsored was meant to address not just the nuisance factor but safety concerns.

Asked why it wasn't being enforced at 38th Street, Lotter said he wasn't sure, "I'd have to talk to the commander to see what's going on."

He did say banning any and all panhandling downtown would make enforcement easier because "it takes away the gray area. You don't have to catch someone in the act" of aggressively panhandling.

It is unlikely the proposal will come up for a committee vote any time soon. Barth said Democrats have asked the council attorney to review the legality of it. He said they also want to "research best practices in other cities...I'd say we're in ongoing discussions right now and analysis will take a while. I'd rather make sure we do it right then set a date on it."