When City Councilors considered an ordinance aimed at clearing panhandlers from downtown on Nov. 13, City Attorney Chris Melcher sounded primed for a First Amendment battle. He drafted the solicitation ban narrowly, he said, with even a potential lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union in mind.
Sure enough, when the public comment period rolled around, so did the objections. But few people actually spoke against the ban on the grounds of protecting free-speech rights — including pony-tailed peace activist Eric Verlo, who dragged his guitar to the podium for a poorly received rendition of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
Instead, most business owners and homeowners talked about concern for their own parts of the city. Imagining a ban that would displace people from 12 blocks of downtown as soon as Dec. 2, those living and working near smaller commercial districts predicted they will bear the burden of more panhandlers, homeless people and drug users.
After the meeting, several Councilors clearly could envision it, too. Said Council President Scott Hente: "I hope it doesn't [happen], but I'm worried about that."
Councilor Val Snider said he cast the lone vote against the ban because city staff hadn't answered questions about alternative measures, but added that "like a squeezed tube of toothpaste," panhandlers likely would pop up elsewhere.
Councilor Bernie Herpin felt similarly, but preferred the analogy of a squeezed balloon.
Citizens who spoke in favor of the downtown ban tended to live or work in the area, or to represent a downtown group. Perry Sanders, who owns the The Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel, read a letter from a potential client who had declined to host an event at his hotel after a site visit.
"The group walked around last night and someone in the neighborhood harassed them the entire time," Sanders said, quoting from the letter. "I won't be able to put our board meeting and shareholders here."
Others had similar tales of business lost, and of feeling that their own safety was endangered by panhandlers. But when it came to more graphic horror stories, west-siders took the cake.
Linda Schlarb, co-owner of Old Town Propane Co., at West Colorado Avenue and 28th Street, said panhandlers pass out around her store, and leave behind crack pipes and needles. Her customers pack guns or ask her to escort them from their cars. She, too, carries a gun.
"I've gone out to fill a tank, come back into my store and I have one [person] passed out on my floor," she said. "I don't know what to do with this."
Another woman claimed that panhandlers and homeless break into homes, and that her neighbor woke during a recent night to find a "meth head" on her porch. At the Red Rocks Shopping Center Safeway, she said, she witnessed a man banging his head into a pole until blood covered him. Just last week, she said, she had to physically push an aggressive panhandler away. "I'm 115 pounds!" she told Council.
Many west-siders favored a law increasing the distance panhandlers can stand from a doorway from 6 feet to 20 feet, and a law against public intoxication. Council passed the former and soon will consider the latter.
But the idea that a full ban was fitting only for downtown didn't set well with people like Kathleen McFadden, owner of the Range Gallery in Old Colorado City,
"The city attorney [said] that the downtown is very sensitive and very important," she said. "Well, I think we're all very sensitive right now ... and we'd like to think we're real important, too."
In her comments, McFadden also mentioned something that came up numerous times during the meeting: Much of the panhandling the public complains about is already illegal.
An "aggressive panhandling" ban in the city code bans begging in numerous circumstances. For instance, it's illegal to beg from people who are in a stopped vehicle, or entering or exiting a vehicle, or using an ATM, or sitting at a restaurant patio. Panhandlers have to keep their distance not just from doorways, but also from ticket lines. It's illegal to beg after dark, to follow someone, to ask again after being refused, to touch someone, to block someone's way, or to use profane, abusive, violent or threatening language while begging.
Since the law already is very restrictive, many said that better enforcement of the existing law was the answer. Melcher, however, defended the downtown ban, saying that even legal passive solicitation — quietly sitting with a sign asking for help — was scaring away customers downtown.
Police Chief Pete Carey tried to alleviate Councilors' doubts by saying that he's increasing enforcement against aggressive panhandling and other offenses on the west side. (He also plans to consider better enforcement in other problem areas.)
Since August, he said, police have made about 60 arrests on the west side for offenses like drinking in public and trespassing. That's thanks to stepped-up enforcement including two cops on foot patrols during key weekday hours, a weekly visit from the Homeless Outreach Team police unit, plus more patrols along the Colorado Avenue corridor. Vice officers have also been ensuring that liquor stores aren't selling to visibly intoxicated people.
Carey said he's been working with neighborhood groups on a campaign to discourage giving to panhandlers, and meeting with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to talk about the area's problem motels, where panhandlers often live. But Carey told Council that, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, panhandling — and crime in general — are bigger problems downtown.
"The downtown area has about three times more persons crimes as the west side," he said. "The downtown area has almost two times more property crimes as the west side. The downtown area has about six times more weapons offenses. And, finally, the downtown area has over four times more disorderly crimes."
Council must give final approval to the downtown solicitation ban before it goes into effect.
City Council's formal meeting began at 1 p.m. on Nov. 13. With a panhandling ban on the agenda, Council chambers were stuffy and tinged with the smell of human breath. The public overflowed into the hallways.
But Council was in no hurry to hear from the masses. Panhandling was the last item on the agenda. It wasn't until after an evening dinner break that the first citizen was given their three minutes to speak. Around 8:30 p.m. Council finally voted on the hot item. More than 20 citizens waited out the ordeal.
Councilor Tim Leigh said at a later meeting that he thought the panhandling ordinance should have been bumped to the beginning of the agenda. "Can we have a little more common sense?" he asked. "The whole place was packed."
Council President Scott Hente sets the agenda. At the beginning of the Nov. 13 meeting, he and his colleagues could have rearranged it, but he says that might have created confusion among those citizens who had planned to come later — especially since last-minute changes urged by Mayor Steve Bach on the panhandling item had already led to some disruption.
While Tuesday's gone, some wonder if Council could address hot-button issues in a more citizen-friendly way in the future — perhaps by placing them at the top of the agenda to start with.
"I could probably do that," Hente says, "but [then] I'm playing a little fast and loose with rules." Though they're unofficial, Hente says, Council has long followed a set of rules that establish the order of business.
Council could also call a special meeting to deal with only one hot topic, easing the process for citizens. But Hente says it's not his preference, noting such a policy could lead to a proliferation of meetings.
"I realize we sometimes stay there a long time," Hente said. "But sometimes, I think that's better than having two or three different meetings. — JAS