Panhandling ordinance dropped

Syracuse Common Council members applauded the administration of Mayor Matt Driscoll’s decision to withdraw a proposal outlawing aggressive panhandling, Monday.

“I was opposed to it from the beginning,” said Councilor-at-Large Kate O’Connell, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee. “We should be trying to help our homeless population. Passing a law isn’t going to help.”

The new ordinance would’ve lowered the maximum fine from $250 to $100 while also giving judges the option of sentencing offenders to community service rather than paying a fine, said O’Connell. The ordinance also would’ve outlawed “aggressive” panhandling of any type.

Aggressive panhandling, said District Five Councilor William Simmons, is when beggars continue to ask for money after being told no, or to harass, touch or threaten people in any way. But the ordinance drew controversy on the vagueness of the word “aggressive.”

“It was just too broad,” said Simmons, who is also on the public safety committee. “It allowed too much discretion for enforcement.”

O’Connell added only a small portion of the panhandlers fit the definition.

The ordinance – the fifth of its kind – also infringed upon constitutional rights, said O’Connell. The first amendment protects panhandlers approaching people and asking for money.

“Most importantly, (panhandlers) still have their rights now,” O’Connell said. “They’re still constitutionally protected.”

City administration officials said they had no timetable to submit a new version.

“The mayor is going to rework (the ordinance),” City Administration Spokeswoman Sheri Owens said. “He’s looking out for the best interests of the people in Syracuse.”

“The city administration,” Simmons said, “is going to try to achieve their goals through the existing laws that are on the books.”

Until then, the Common Council is looking for other ways, besides new legislation, to improve panhandling around the Syracuse area.

Said O’Connell: “I believe that increased police presence coupled with more proactive community support services is the solution to the problem.”

The article originally ran in the Fall 2002 edition of The Blueprint.

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