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Tampa City Council repeals panhandling ordinance to little outcry

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Four year ago, the Tampa City Council spent nearly a year agonizing over creating a law to reduce the number of panhandlers who began appearing in larger numbers at city intersections. Public hearings brought out critics who said the city was “criminalizing” the homeless. Ultimately a compromise measure was crafted that banned such solicitations, with the exception of those hawking newspapers seven days a week.

But the City Council today voted to repeal that law today, and there was nary a public protest in sight.

The Council did so based upon advice of its legal staff. In May a federal lawsuit was filed against the city by a group called Homeless Helping Homeless, who claims that the law is unconstitutional. It’s one of a number of suits against cities that have passed similar laws in recent years.

City Attorney Julia Mandell said today the repeal is necessary to “curb potential litigation expenses.”

Last month the Council voted on the matter for the first time, and it passed 6-1, with only Council Chair Frank Reddick dissenting. Reddick said that the repeal would harm newspaper vendors who rely on such sales to support themselves.

With Reddick absent today, the vote was 6-0.

Only two people protested.

“Because of expensive litigation we’re going to put 100 people out of work?” asked Dave Driscoll, an independent contractor who sells copies of the Tampa Bay Times on Sundays. “My understanding is that there’s been no safety issue. I can’t see any reason to put 100 people out of work.”

Originally the ordinance that was debated in 2011 created a loophole for newspaper hawkers like Driscoll to sell papers on Sundays. But after officials with the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin complained as their twice-weekly editions come out during the middle of the week, the Council relented, allowing seven-day-a- week sale of papers.

“It really hurts my heart to see that this place isn’t packed for comment,” complained Derek Chamblee, a homeless activist for decades. Shouting at the council, he said he was speaking for “thousands of people” who weren’t at City Hall on Thursday. “Six years on both sides of the Bay I told you that if you pass these laws they’ll be (ruled) unconstitutional,” he said, referring to similar homeless measures that were passed in St. Petersburg in 2010.

The Council came back for a second bite of the apple when it came to sanctioning panhandling in 2013, passing an ordinance that bans panhandling in downtown Tampa and Ybor City, as well as near ATMS and other areas. That law remains on the books.

City Councilwoman Yolie Capin said she’d like the city’s legal department to look into the possibilities of allowing some solicitation on the streets in the future, depending on how issues in the courts evolve. The legal department will come back on September 17.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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