The Flagler Beach City Commission this evening will discuss adopting a panhandling ordinance at the urging of City Commissioner Eric Cooley, a business owner in town.
Bunnell, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach have all in the past two years adopted ordinances that prohibit panhandling in one form or another.
Cooley says he’s not interested in “a cut-and-paste job” that adopts variations of the three cities ordinances, which he sees as too heavy-handed. His proposal is two-fold: first, to open a discussion about panhandling and examine what is already on the books and enforceable, if anything. Second, to consider adopting an ordinance tailored specifically to Flagler Beach and only to address “aggressive” panhandling, without prohibiting it otherwise, nor discouraging normal, unobtrusive begging.
“These are just good people that don’t cause any trouble,” Cooley said of most panhandlers. “I know a lot of them by name. They come into my store.” Cooley owns the 7-Eleven on State Road A1A in the heart of Flagler Beach. But a small percentage of beggars encroach on businesses and their patrons “and can be an nuisance,” Cooley said. “I just want to have a discussion in place to address aggressive or intimidating or even potentially dangerous-style panhandling.”
He acknowledges that there is no broad panhandling or homeless problem in Flagler Beach. Nor have sheriff’s or Flagler Beach police reports denoted any kind of uptick in trespassing or criminal activity related to transients in the city. Cooley recognizes that A1A lends itself to transient travel. He sees it in the number of transients who patronize his store. He notes that the ordinances Bunnell, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach passed recently have likely pushed more transients through Flagler Beach, and that some can be overly aggressive. He’s asked some individuals to leave his lot because of such aggression toward customers. “That crosses the line, to me, and that’s really the only thing I’m interested in addressing with this,” Cooley said.
Homelessness, panhandling and poverty have not been a top concern or subject of discussion on the Flagler Beach City Commission. “I haven’t seen it as a real problem here but it may not hurt to stay proactive,” says City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur. “I would have to see the verbiage to establish a final opinion.”
Last year a Palm Coast City Council member who has since left the council triggered a discussion about the possibility of adopting a panhandling ordinance in the city. The council member had just heard about St. Augustine passing its own ordinance. She was concerned about the panhandling that takes place particularly at the intersection of Palm Coast Parkway and Old Kings Road. The topic caused a spirited discussion on the council, but there was no appetite for further action. The problem, a majority of council members said, was localized, and when it gets out of hand, businesses or individuals can always call on law enforcement. That’s rare.
Earlier this year homelessness in Palm Coast focused some attention both on the Palm Coast City Council and the Flagler County Commission as a homeless camp near the public library on Palm Coast Parkway grew to two or three dozen homeless people. The camp was cleared and fenced in, in preparation for the construction of a sheriff’s operations center there. One county commissioner, Joe Mullins, has been pushing for a local ordinance that would regulate homelessness, so far with little success.
Cooley in an interview Wednesday took pains to separate himself from Mullins’s approach. “There are folks out there who are trying to use this style of legislation as a passive-aggressive approach for either bullying or push out the homeless. That’s not the intent,” Cooley said. He’s conflicted about his own proposal. “It generates mixed feelings for me because I’m actually against using a passive aggressive approach to use legislation to give law enforcement another tool” to get on people who are “already down on their luck,” he said. “I only want to address aggressive behavior.”
That may entail creating safe zones or places within which panhandlers may not ask for money. But that’s the the approach the three ordinances in Bunnell, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach took. Even though they are written under the guise of tackling “aggressive” panhandling, their prohibitions are far broader, affecting all panhandling of any kind in many parts of their cities, and all three ban panhandling outright at night, no matter how courteous or discreet it may be.
The Bunnell ordinance, for example, pays lip service to the constitutionality of panhandling and begging, saying it does not intend to stop either. The ordinance starts off by saying that its intent is to address “aggressive” panhandling only. It spends almost a page defining “aggressive panhandling.” For example, approaching a person to demand money “in such a manner as would cause a reasonable person to believe that the person is being threatened with imminent bodily injury or the commission of a criminal act upon the person approached” is an act of aggression. So is continuing to ask for money and pursuing someone after being told no. So is blocking or impeding a person’s passage, touching a person or engaging in conduct “that would reasonably be construed as intended to intimidate” someone into giving money.
Those provisions fit the definition of aggressive behavior. But the ordinance then goes on to outline “prohibited conduct, proximity and location restrictions” that have nothing to do with aggressive behavior. The ordinance prohibits panhandling within 20 feet of a business, a bus stop or any transportation facility, within 20 feet of an ATM, a parking lot, even a parking meter , or any public restroom operated b y the city, and within 100 feet of any daycare or school. Those prohibitions do not make a distinction between panhandling and aggressive panhandling, thus nullifying much of the ordinance’s claims that it does not intent to impede the constitutional right of panhandling.
The ordinance goes on to outline further restrictions, without distinctions about aggressive panhandling: a beggar may not approach anyone at an outdoor dining or shopping zone or at any taxi stand or bus stop, or approach someone after having drunk alcohol or illegal drugs. It isn’t illegal to drink alcohol, and the ordinance does not specify that a drunkard may not approach and solicit someone. It broadly state that approaching someone “under the influence of alcohol” is prohibited. And, without explanation or justification, it further prohibits any panhandling “after dark,” whether aggressive or not. Violators are punished with a $100 fine for the first offense, going up to $250 by the time of the fourth offense. The ordinance leaves silent how a b beggar asking for change will be able to pay a $100 fine (though it does not prohibit begging to pay a fine, so long as the begging is conducted within the ordinances parameters).
The Daytona Beach and St. Augustine ordinances mirror Bunnell’s almost exactly–the cities clearly cut and pasted each other’s wording–but for an additional prohibition: beggars may not solicit money within 150 feet of any signalized intersection of arterial or collector roads, which in effect prohibits the activity in much of the city’s core. Nor may begging take place on the city’s boardwalk.
The three government’s ordinances were included in the background materials to Cooley’s discussion item at tonight’s Flagler Beach City Commission meeting. (See below.) Cooley said the inclusion was not his doing, nor should it be seen as inspiring the sort of discussion or potential ordinance he’d want for Flagler Beach.
Cities and counties, including Palm Coast and Flagler County, have been reluctant to adopt panhandling ordinances because such measures are fraught with legal risk. They invite lawsuits. the Southern Legal Counsel, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and a local attorney, J. Russell Collins, in February filed a federal lawsuit against St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar and Florida Highway Patrol Director Gene Spaulding. The lawsuit targets the agencies’ enforcement of two state statutes (not St. Augustine’s ordinance), alleging them to be unconstitutional. The agencies, the lawsuit states, are prohibiting the poor from “standing on public sidewalks and streets in St. Johns County holding signs soliciting charitable donations from fellow citizens.”