Second reading of City of Sarasota’s revised panhandling ordinance continued to next month

Concerns raised about how political speech and solicitations of contributions to foundations could be affected if the proposed language were approved

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo
City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

After the vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) cited what he called “very overbroad” sections of the proposed new ordinance governing panhandling in the City of Sarasota — especially in regard to political speech — the City Commission voted unanimously to continue the second reading of the revised law until next month.

City Attorney Robert Fournier recommended the action on Feb. 16 after City Commissioner Susan Chapman also voiced concerns about some of the sections referenced by Michael Barfield of Sarasota on behalf of the ACLU.

Fournier told the board that continuing the second reading will “give me a chance to look [at the document],” adding that he was “willing to consider that possibility” that further tweaks are needed.

On Feb. 1, the City Commission voted unanimously to approve the revised ordinance on its first reading. At the time, Fournier said he felt the changes would invalidate part of a lawsuit the ACLU filed against the city last year on behalf of several homeless clients. The other part of that complaint alleges that the city has been trying to criminalize homeless individuals “despite the lack of an available shelter and a deepening housing crisis.” (See the related stories in this issue.)

During the Feb. 16 City Commission meeting, Barfield was the only speaker to offer comments on the new panhandling law.

“I do think that this proposed ordinance before you … goes a long way to remove many of the constitutional defects [that are the subject of part of the lawsuit].”

He also recognized that in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last term in Reid v. Town of Gilbert, “regulating in this particular area and drafting any ordinance is close to rocket science. It’s very, very difficult,” he added.

Michael Barfield. File photo
Michael Barfield. File photo

During a Feb. 2 interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Fournier made a similar remark, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court case was not what he could call “settled law.” He told the city commissioners on Feb. 1 that he expected it could take up to three years for the issues in Reid v. Town of Gilbert to reach that point.

Nonetheless, Barfield told the City Commission this week, one section of the revised panhandling ordinance “really is overbroad.”

He referenced the segment deals with the definition of personal solicitation in regard to “support for a political, religious, commercial, social or other cause (including but not limited to financial support, personal or political support for or opposition to a political candidate or ballot measure, a request to sign or circulate a petition, to participate in a political campaign or event … or an offer of information about any of the foregoing).”

The revised ordinance would make such solicitations illegal at bus stops, in public transportation facilities and parking garages and at sidewalk cafes, Barfield pointed out.

“We think this is very overbroad,” he reiterated. A city commissioner wearing a name tag who was running for re-election would be prohibited from talking with a potential supporter at a sidewalk café if the ordinance were made law, he told the commissioners. Additionally, a representative of any of the community’s numerous nonprofit foundations would be in violation of the new ordinance if that person spoke with someone at a sidewalk café about a potential contribution to the foundation, he said.

Members of the ACLU of Florida, Barfield continued, do not feel that is what the City Commission intends. Therefore, he continued, “we’ve asked that you consider going back to the drawing board on that.”

In regard to the revised ordinance’s section on aggressive behavior — including “intentionally touching a person” — Barfield added, “That’s already unlawful. It’s a battery under Florida law to touch someone against their will.”

Blocking the passageway of a person on a sidewalk — another facet of the revised law — already is regulated by a different city ordinance, he pointed out. “We have not challenged that.”

Barfield told the board, “I’m happy to have one of our staff attorneys discuss [the proposed tweaks] with the city attorney.”

He then asked the commissioners to refrain from approving the document prior to its modification.

“I’m certainly willing to keep an open mind,” Fournier said, adding, “Unquestionably, it is a lot better [than the existing panhandling ordinance].”

City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo
City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

“I’m so happy [Barfield] made those comments about political speech,” Commissioner Susan Chapman told her colleagues. “I do think that we need to look at this further, because all political speech is First Amendment-protected and subject to strict scrutiny.”

Then Fournier recommended the board continue the second reading to its next meeting.

When Mayor Willie Shaw asked City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini whether a motion was necessary to that effect, she replied that she believed the consensus of the board would be sufficient.

The other commissioners concurred with Chapman. “I was concerned about that, too,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said of the political speech issue.

“Everybody was concerned about that but me,” Shaw said with a chuckle.