The Greensboro City Council at its special meeting Tuesday, July 24, passed not one but two ordinances prohibiting aggressive panhandling.
Since May 15, the city has had no ordinance dealing with panhandling and reports have been that aggressive panhandling has been growing more common. Without any ordinance governing panhandling and solicitation, the police cannot step in unless some other law is violated.
Both ordinances passed by identical 5-to-4 votes with Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilmembers Justin Outling, Tammi Thurm, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Nancy Hoffmann voting in favor and Councilmembers Michelle Kennedy, Yvonne Johnson, Goldie Wells and Sharon Hightower voting against.
The result of the two votes was that one ordinance went into effect and one did not. The reason for that is the same reason that Greensboro hasn’t had an ordinance that addressed panhandling since May. For an ordinance to go into effect it either has to have six favorable votes or be passed twice at two different meetings by a simple majority.
The ordinance that is now in effect is the ordinance prohibiting aggressive solicitation that the City Council first passed on April 24 by a 6-to-3 vote, which meant the ordinance technically went into effect. However, before that meeting ended, Hightower became upset that the council passed a policy granting preference to local contractors in some limited circumstances. Hightower said that preference should always be given to Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE) and not to white-owned local businesses.
A provision of the policy states that if there is a question of an MWBE contractor or a local contractor the MWBE contractor would be given preference, but that didn’t satisfy Hightower and she said that because that policy passed, she was going to change her vote on the panhandling ordinance.
The two votes seemed unrelated but both the local preference and the aggressive panhandling ordinance were strongly supported by Outling.
At the next regular meeting of the City Council on May 15, Hightower changed her vote so that the ordinance only passed by a 5-to-4 majority and would not go into effect unless it passed again, which it did Tuesday night.
When the aggressive panhandling ordinance was supposed to come before the City Council for a vote on June 18, instead the City Council voted to delay the second vote in order to hold five public forums on the ordinance and hired the law firm Parker Poe to give the city advice.
So, at the meeting on Tuesday, July 24, the City Council was considering the new ordinance proposed by Parker Poe attorneys Mac McCarley and Catherine Clodfelter, which in some ways is stronger than the original ordinance. Neither ordinance mentions panhandling.
McCarley said that from their research the key to writing an ordinance that would withstand a court challenge was that the person wouldn’t have to be heard to determine whether or not they had violated the ordinance.
The City Council was clearly split 5 to 4 on the ordinances. After the presentation by the attorneys and the public hearing that took a total of two hours, Vaughan asked for a 10-minute recess. Johnson asked if they couldn’t vote on the ordinance first and Wells made a motion to delay any action on the proposed Parker Poe ordinance.
During the earlier council discussion, Kennedy, who is the director of the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), a daytime homeless shelter largely supported by the city, had suggested that the ordinance needed to be discussed further. Wells had expressed concern that an attorney from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty had sent a letter to the City Council with some questions about the ordinance.
McCarley said he read that letter as mainly being about the process and not about the content of the ordinance.
City Attorney Tom Carruthers noted that this was the second letter the city had received from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and the one about the first ordinance had objections to the content but this one did not.
Wells said that if an expert were weighing in then the City Council would be wise to delay action until his questions could be answered.
Outling said, “We have dealt with this problem for several months. There is a problem with some persons soliciting aggressively. I don’t think it’s a huge issue but it is an issue. It’s hard to imagine why it takes a quarter of a year to deal with this problem.”
As he has done in the past, Outling asked his fellow councilmembers to vote against the ordinance if they didn’t like it but to vote on it so the council could move on.
Outling is correct. This has been the major issue that the City Council has discussed and heard about since April, and that would include the time the City Council spent on the $543 million budget.
Hoffmann said, “I think it is absolutely irresponsible of elected officials not to take a stand and vote on something they support.”
The vote on delaying the vote on the Parker Poe ordinance failed by the same 5-to-4 vote as everything else with Vaughan, Outling, Hoffmann, Abuzuaiter and Thurm voting against the delay. The council actually voted twice because Johnson misread the vote totals the first time.
After that vote, the council recessed for 10 minutes, and during the recess the plan to pass the first ordinance if the Parker Poe ordinance didn’t pass by at least six votes was finalized. A lot of issues get worked out by councilmembers during the break.
When the council came back from the recess, Thurm made the motion to approve the Parker Poe ordinance that prohibits solicitation and distribution in city parking decks and parking lots. It also makes it illegal to block or impede passage on a sidewalk or street and makes harassing people illegal regardless of the intent of the harassment.
Without discussion the Parker Poe ordinance passed 5 to 4, which meant the city would continue to have no ordinance governing solicitation for at least another month.
Outling then made a motion to pass the original aggressive solicitation ordinance that the City Council first passed in April by a 6-to-3 vote and then passed in May with a 5-to-4 vote after Hightower changed her vote to a no.
Thurm said that she believed the Parker Poe ordinance was superior and, in August if the Parker Poe ordinance passed a second time, the council could rescind this ordinance. Thurm said that the City Council needed to do something to protect the safety of the citizens until the August vote.
Hightower called the motion “bait and switch” and said it was not “in good faith.”
Kennedy said, “I can’t think of a worse example of political leadership than to pass an ordinance that you plan to repeal.” She added, “It is discrimination.”
Outling objected to calling the ordinance discriminatory and said, “This is about prohibiting what everyone should agree is wrongful contact.”
He added, “It is the height of irresponsibility to recognize that there is a problem but refuse to act.”
Kennedy tried to get the vote delayed, but there was already a motion on the floor and she accused councilmembers of responding to a small segment of the population who had direct lines to councilmembers.
Vaughan said that said that anyone who had read social media knew what a big issue this was to people across the city.
She added, “You are supposed to represent everybody, not just the people who show up at the IRC.”
Kennedy responded, “I appreciate your input that I might be only showing up for the people at the IRC. But I can tell you any day of the week that I’d rather be doing that than representing people lining pocket books.”
Vaughan interrupted loudly saying, “If you are going to throw things out like that, back it up.”
Kennedy admonished Vaughan for interrupting.
Vaughan interrupted over Kennedy’s interruption of her: “If your going to make explosive accusations be prepared to back it up.”
Kennedy didn’t back it up but said that if the City Council passed the ordinance, “We will be in litigation before the ink is dry.”
Wells said that they all knew there was harassment and they needed to come up with something that would work for all the people of Greensboro.
Abuzuaiter said that she had been chased and had perfume sprayed on her in a parking lot. She said, “We have to listen to all the people who are contacting us.” She added that her pockets were not being lined by anyone and said, “Please don’t make blanket statements that you know nothing about.”
Outling noted that two other cities in North Carolina had passed similar ordinances recently and hadn’t been sued, but that the city was sued all the time and if they were sued they would defend the ordinance in court. He added that in his opinion the ordinance was constitutional, but it would be up to a judge to decide.
He also objected to characterization of the ordinance as discriminatory because he said it was prohibiting wrong action and that saying it was discriminatory implied that one group engaged in that wrongful action more than others.
Thurm noted that if the Parker Poe ordinance, which Wells, Kennedy and Hightower had talked glowingly about after voting against it, had passed with one more vote, the City Council wouldn’t be considering passing the first ordinance.
Johnson said that although she thought people needed to be protected from harassment, she also thought this ordinance would be challenged in court.
Hoffmann said. “The citizens of Greensboro didn’t hire the ACLU or the National Law Center on Homelessness to run the City of Greensboro.”
The vote to adopt the same aggressive solicitation ordinance that the city first passed in April was passed on the same 5-to-4 vote as everything else.
If the procedure outlined by Thurm works and the City Council passes the Parker Poe ordinance a second time in August, then the city really doesn’t have to worry much about being sued. Courts move exceedingly slow and the idea of getting the city in court before August 21, while not impossible, is close to it.
Plus, why would anyone sue the city for an ordinance that the City Council has said that it plans to rescind in a month? It seems that the smart legal move would be to wait and see if the city did pass a new ordinance and then spend the time and money challenging that ordinance.
The City Council unanimously passed a new ordinance setting time and place restrictions on street performers.