When Manitou Springs City Council created an ordinance forbidding all panhandling — U.S. Constitution be damned — it probably didn't realize just how far-reaching the law would be.
"Somebody pointed out to me that the ordinance forbids trick-or-treaters," American Civil Liberties Union attorney Mark Silverstein says with a chuckle.
Good news: It appears no princesses, pirates or Tiggers were ticketed Oct. 31. Bad news: Other people have been, including Nathan Butler, who fought his ticket for months before turning to the ACLU for help. On Nov. 6, the ACLU threatened legal action. The charges against Butler were dropped, and four other pending charges under the ordinance will be dropped as well, according to city attorney Jeff Parker.
The tickets, issued in Southern Colorado's liberal oasis, contain incriminating notes like, "did play music in public for money."
At its meeting Tuesday, Nov. 17, the Manitou Council decided to have a work session Dec. 8, at which the public will be invited to help balance the needs of the town with the rights of beggars. It appears that no new ordinance will be in place until early 2010.
Silverstein did not say whether he'd move forward with legal actions if the city didn't respond promptly. But Councilor Aimee Cox doesn't feel like testing his patience.
"We can't let it languish any longer," she says. "It leaves us vulnerable, and worst of all we have an ordinance that we can't enforce, so we have the most liberal of ordinances."
It might seem prudent for the city to investigate its options — except, a similar investigation happened months ago. In June, Councilors reviewed the ordinance and heard the city attorney advise them, publicly and on the record, that it was unconstitutional. Apparently more interested in the concerns of business owners than the advice from its lawyer, Council opted to table the issue indefinitely, leaving the ordinance in effect.
Cox was the only one in attendance to vote against the no-action action. She had presented alternatives that would have banned aggressive panhandling, which many governments employ.
Outspoken business owner Bud Ford, former Manitou mayor and husband of Councilor Donna Ford, said at that time that he didn't even want someone asking his customers nicely for money.
"That's offensive," he said. "We don't want that in our community. I don't think you'll find anyone in the business district that wants that. I'm sure we'll find somewhere in the United States that doesn't allow begging ... There's nothing in the Constitution that guarantees the right to beg."
Well, actually, Mr. Ford, there is.
"Charitable solicitation is protected by the First Amendment," Silverstein notes.
Recently, Donna Ford spoke more softly than her husband on the issue. She said she remembered decades ago when "hippies" would shower urine on tourists from Manitou balconies, or threaten shoppers, and she's afraid of those days returning.
"In this day and age, you can't just remove someone because they're acting poorly, because you might offend them," she says with frustration.
But Ford, who is term-limited and will leave Council in January, says she does think changes to the ordinance must be made — hopefully in a way that appeases both sides.
"I think it's going to take a lot of careful consideration and time," she says.
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