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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007 12:37 pm

No-beg zone

Council considers anti-panhandling ordinance that affects only downtown

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Untitled Document Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman says that although downtown panhandling doesn’t faze him, he’s willing to step up on behalf of those for whom it’s an issue. “People have expressed it to me as a problem,” Cahnman says. “Some people are bothered by it — Downtown Springfield [Inc.] with all of its business members, they are the experts on what’s going on downtown, and they believe it’s not good for the downtown community.”
After working out the kinks with DSI, Cahnman introduced a new panhandling ordinance that was approved by members of the city’s finance committee on Tuesday night. The measure will move on for full debate at next week’s Springfield City Council meeting. The new ordinance states that panhandling is fully prohibited in the downtown historic district, an area of public property that includes the Statehouse complex. Those in violation of the ordinance will be fined $25 to $100 or be required to serve eight to 40 hours of community service. Cahnman says that the penalty of community service makes more sense for panhandlers who have limited or no income. “Someone who violates a panhandling offense obviously doesn’t have much money, so it would be difficult for them to pay a fine,” he says. “This is something those convicted of panhandling can do and they would be engaging in legitimate work.”
The current panhandling ordinance prohibits the practice from sunset to sunrise throughout Springfield, but Victoria Clemons, executive director of DSI, says that she came on board when this measure ceased to alleviate the problem.
Several downtown business owners, especially those who receive most of their patrons during the late-afternoon hours, have complained about an increase in panhandling, Clemons says.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Clemons told committee members that a ghost-walk tour guide noticed more aggressive panhandling, with several people following his group or shouting profanities. The guide brought it to her attention, she said, after families began leaving the tour and walking away. Clemons said that she called on downtown-neighborhood police officer Dave Barringer for assistance and, after much research, modeled the new ordinance after a successful Orlando, Fla., law that prohibits panhandling only in the commercial district. This measure does not challenge freedom of speech, Clemons says, as a proposal to ban panhandling citywide would. Barringer, who has worked in the downtown area for nine years, agreed Tuesday that the ordinance would allow the police department to run panhandlers out of the downtown area without violating their First Amendment rights. “I would rather have it citywide, personally, but I think you’re going to lose it under your freedom of speech,” Barringer said. “It’s like the KKK coming to town — you don’t want them in your town, but they’re going to have the right to come here if they want to, whether you like it or not.”
Despite the possibility of a constitutional violation, several aldermen expressed concerns that the ban would not affect all of Springfield. “Why just this district?” Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney asked, “so they can easily go a few blocks away and panhandle on South Grand?”
Mahoney also said that a problem could arise if panhandlers filtered into neighborhoods and solicited residents on their sidewalks. When Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson expressed similar views, Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen, who is harassed by panhandlers during his walk to work, said that he was willing to fight for a citywide measure after Cahnman’s ordinance is approved.
“I will support you if you want to go citywide and let them challenge us,” Theilen said. “Let’s get this one on the books first, but then I have no problem going citywide with it. I’ve been hit up enough that I’m sick of it.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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