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Medford to appeal ruling on panhandling

The city of Medford will appeal a ruling that found its ban on begging at intersections and other locations unconstitutional, even as officials work to rewrite the ordinance.

The City Council voted Thursday to challenge last month's order by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia, while at the same time trying to address some of the shortcomings he pointed out.

Mejia's order found Medford's ordinance violated protections of free speech contained in Article 1, Section 8, of Oregon's Constitution. He also criticized it as convoluted and not particularly well-written with definitions and prohibitions interspersed.

"This issue needs definition," councilmember Bob Strosser said. "We should appeal and work to strengthen our ordinance."

Medford passed the ordinance in January 2008 after receiving complaints from citizens about aggressive panhandlers at intersections and at freeway off-ramps. The city amended the statute this year in an effort to make sure it would stand up to a constitutional challenge.

Medford resident and American Civil Liberties Union member Derek Volkart filed the suit challenging the law as unconstitutionally restricting free speech, even though he wasn't cited under the law.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Lori Cooper said the city could base its appeal in part on the technicality that Volkart shouldn't have standing to challenge the law because he hadn't been cited. The city also could argue that Mejia erred in his decision about the law's constitutionality, but that argument likely would have a limited chance of winning, she said.

The appeal would be built on briefs already prepared for the Circuit Court challenge, so it could be done with little further expense to the city, Cooper said.

Council member Al Densmore said the city had worked hard to protect free-speech rights while looking out for public safety by banning panhandling that was aggressive or potentially dangerous.

"The Appeals Court could give us more details on protecting public safety without impinging on people's rights," he said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.