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Council discusses ordinances on panhandling, sidewalk blocking

The Ashland City Council decided not to decide — yet. At Tuesday’s council meeting they continued but did not conclude a discussion about creating policy around “downtown behavior” and responding to reports of aggressive panhandling involving self-identified homeless, home-free and traveling persons. 

They did ask City Attorney Dave Lohman about details of proposed ordinances for stricter enforcement around panhandling and took more public testimony. 

Lohman stressed the First Amendment rights of all persons to legally solicit, gather in public and to have those rights preserved. He was clear that while the law has these protections, it does promise that everyone has the right to feel comfortable or have pleasant interactions, “Solicitation is covered under the First Amendment. Any restriction on time, manner and place has to be very narrowly tailored." 

Councilor Mike Morris asked, “What would happen if a group of friends gathered chatting on First Friday, blocking a sidewalk, entrances, exits or a public space?” Lohman was firm that that group could be asked by police to move and if they didn’t they would be given no greater consideration than a group of homeless or traveling people. He made it clear the law speaks to intent. The people blocking public access have to intend to do that and refuse to move when asked. 

The proposed ordinances would make it an offense to block public access on sidewalks, exits, entrances, or to approach people for panhandling at ATM’s or in their cars. It also speaks to harassment. Holding a sign or speaking to someone is protected under the First Amendment, said Lohman, but laying on sidewalks or public spaces, blocking them or panhandling in places where those approached cannot easily walk away is not part of that protection, nor is following someone and acting in a threatening manner. 

“A captive audience, sitting at an outdoor café, at an ATM or someone in a vehicle. Coercive solicitation is not legal. It applies to Girl Scout Cookies, etc. and just in these areas," referring to public places where people have the need to come and go or places where they cannot easily walk away, said Lohman. 

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg told the council and residents he wanted more time to consider the right approach. Councilor Pam Marsh echoed the sentiment, saying, “We want to consider all the options available, not just legal enforcement.” 

Chief of Police Tighe O’Meara agreed. Asked by Marsh if the ordinances would prevent panhandlers from approaching people in cars, at ATMs or blocking walkways, he said, “The answers are not law enforcement, there needs to be a holistic approach, but these ordinances may address complaints.” 

Testimony at the council meeting seemed to echo that sentiment, with the exception of Medford resident Robert McMasters, who came to thank the city for careful deliberation. “I see this as a city trying to take back its streets from hoards of travelers,” he said. 

Another speaker had a different take. “It’s mean-spirited and judgmental. This whole meeting is about a particular group of people. We are making people 'other' and trying to make life as uncomfortable as possible to make them go away. These laws are aimed at a particular group of people and are discriminatory. The 'other' is us,”  Ashland resident Robert Heilbroner said in an emotional appeal to the City Council. 

The Ashland City Council is also considering hiring outreach workers, ambassadors and cadets to act as intermediaries between homeless, travelers and others who sleep outside, and business people, primarily in the Plaza and downtown sections of Ashland, as well as residents concerned with “downtown behavior.” 

Other possibilities are also under consideration, such as a model based on a California program, which enlists homeless and travelers as workers and team leaders to assist with community issues. 

The Ashland City Council plans to discuss the issue more and solicit additional public input at their next city council meeting. That meeting will be held at 7 p.m. March 15 in the Ashland Council Chamber at 1175 E. Main St., Ashland.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.