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Medford won't appeal decision on panhandling

The Medford City Council backed away Thursday from appealing the rejection of a panhandling ordinance after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar law in Washington earlier this year. But the city's police chief told council members a new proposal to control begging was in the works.

"The 9th Circuit Court made a ruling that basically knocks our legal arguments out right underneath us," Medford City Attorney Lori Cooper said.

On June 24, the 9th Circuit Court ruled the city of Seattle violated the free speech rights of a street performer named Michael James Berger by requiring that he obtain a permit before seeking donations in public places.

In May, the Medford council voted to challenge an order by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia that found the city's law against begging unconstitutional. By a unanimous vote Thursday, council members voted to drop the appeal after hearing they likely wouldn't win and could be liable for court costs.

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 the ordinance as convoluted and not particularly well-written with definitions and prohibitions interspersed.

In light of the 9th Circuit Court ruling, the city decided it would instead attempt to write a new ordinance to deal with panhandling.

"You will be seeing something coming your way in the near future," Medford Police Chief Randy Schoen told City Council members.

The overturned law targeted panhandlers who worked at intersections and on streets by prohibiting them from approaching cars. It also banned abusive solicitation, which included following, touching or blocking the person solicited.

Panhandlers have been seen on street corners and public places throughout the city since the police stopped enforcing the ordinance in March, following Mejia's ruling.

On Thursday, Johnny Lee Smith stood next to Biddle Road at the entrance to the Bear Creek Plaza seeking donations to help him get a motel room.

The 51-year-old veteran said that even though he was asking for money, he thought the city was right to curb the practice, because too many panhandlers were aggressive.

"It was a problem before," he said. "I don't blame them. They were weeding out the bad apples."

Smith said he suffers from various physical problems and hopes one day to get into the federal Veterans Affair's Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.

He said the reduced number of panhandlers currently on Medford street corners is the result of lingering uncertainty over the status of the panhandling ordinance.

David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the city's ordinance was clearly unconstitutional, regardless of the 9th Circuit Court ruling in the Seattle case.

"We wouldn't have pursued the case to begin with if we didn't think the Constitution was clear, particularly the Oregon Constitution," he said.

He said the city's ordinance targeted a person's right to free expression. He said there already are laws on the books that prevent impeding traffic.

The city has discussed creating an ordinance patterned after one in Roseburg, but Fidanque said it is so broadly written that it prevents anyone from passing anything in or out of a vehicle.

"What if a kid forgets his lunch?" he asked. It would be against the law for a parent to pass the lunch through the window to a child, he said.

If Roseburg doesn't apply the law equally and the ACLU receives a complaint, Fidanque said, the ordinance could be challenged.

He said Medford could face new legal challenges if a revised law restricted free expression in any way.

"I would hope the city would just let it go," he said.

Arlene Wedsted, executive director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association in Medford, also asked council members to be careful in drafting an ordinance that could affect her organization's Fill-the-Boot fundraisers, in which firefighters stand on streets and street corners collecting donations.

She said a Grants Pass fundraiser that took place in a private parking lot raised $2,000 in 2007 compared with $12,000 raised each time during on-the-street fundraisers in 2008 and 2009. The boost came after the Oregon Department of Transportation reworded an ordinance to allow firefighters to collect the donations on state-controlled roads.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.