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Manitou keeps unconstitutional law banning panhandling

First Amendment be damned.

Manitou Springs may have a neo-hippie reputation, but that doesn't mean its City Council bows down to the Bill of Rights. Especially when doing so would mean allowing people whom local shopkeepers describe as "dirty" and "offensive" to ask their affluent customers for cash.

On June 2, Manitou Springs City Council voted to postpone indefinitely any talk of changing a city ordinance that bans panhandlers from the town. Even though councilors know the law is unconstitutional.

After hearing from residents and merchants, Manitou Council voted not to change the ordinance, following Mayor Eric Drummond's suggestion that "we table this." Councilor Aimee Cox, the only dissenting vote, asked in vain that a date be set to reconsider the issue.

Manitou was considering replacing its all-out ban with an ordinance similar to a Colorado Springs law that prohibits aggressive panhandling and puts other limitations on begging. Manitou City Attorney Jeff Parker had drafted the proposed ordinance after an editorial in the Gazette pointed out that its existing law violated the U.S. Constitution.

But the proposed new wording didn't please former Manitou Mayor Bud Ford, who owns the Dulcimer Shop with his wife, Councilor Donna Ford. Changing the ordinance, he told Council, would mean inviting a criminal "mafia" into town that would rule the streets with "corner bosses."

"This is not Colorado Springs," he said. "We have no desire to be Colorado Springs. All you have to do is go look at downtown Colorado Springs. Are you proud of that? Are you proud of the fact that there are bums all over the street? Are you proud of the fact that they sleep in doorways, they urinate and defecate in doorways?

"So, just what we want is an ordinance that would allow that type of activity in our town," he added sarcastically.

John Eastham, owner of Whickerbill, concurred, saying he had bad experiences with panhandlers when his shop was located on Tejon Street.

"They will say and do anything they want," Eastham said. "They will curse people, and chase them ... Women used to come into my store crying, they were so frightened. And we'd have to escort them to their cars, knowing full well when they left they were never coming back downtown."

For all the references to downtown Colorado Springs, no one made mention of its recent conflict with the homeless. The city rapidly backpedaled recently after accusations surfaced that in city-funded homeless sweeps, volunteers were throwing away the personal belongings of transients. Advocates threatened lawsuits. It took mediation to settle that situation.

By not following the advice of its attorney, Manitou Springs, which operates on a relatively skimpy general fund budget of $4.5 million, is opening itself to lawsuits — which would likely not be decided in the city's favor, according to Parker.

Parker, who strongly suggested the city make a change, noted that the city could choose to adopt the new ordinance he had proposed, or even opt for a stricter — though more legally risky — option. Yet, only Cox showed immediate interest.

"We're sworn to uphold the laws of Manitou Springs," Cox said later. "[But] we can't uphold something that's unconstitutional."

For now, though, Manitou's Councilors are turning their attention to other important business. On Tuesday evening, they considered whether a resident should be allowed to keep two goats in her yard; according to Cox, the request got "no traction" with Council.

stanley@csindy.com

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