Revised city panhandling ordinance and reinstatement of water and sewer fees approved on second readings

As a result of comments made during the Feb. 16 City Commission meeting, the City Attorney’s Office tweaked a section of the panhandling law that could have prohibited free speech

Robert Fournier. File photo
Robert Fournier. File photo

Because of questions raised during the Sarasota City Commission meeting on Feb. 16 about proposed revisions to the city’s panhandling ordinance, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained to the board this week that he had made changes for their consideration.

After Commissioner Liz Alpert pulled the item from the Consent Agenda for discussion prior to its second reading on March 7, Fournier told the board that, upon further review, he concurred with the validity of comments that Michael Barfield, vice president for the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), brought up last month. City Commissioner Susan Chapman also voiced worries then about one section of the proposed law.

“The whole ideal of the ordinance is to prohibit conduct rather than speech in the traditional public forum,” Fournier pointed out during the board’s March 7 meeting.

On Feb. 16, Barfield referenced the segment of the revised law regarding the definition of personal solicitation, saying he felt it could apply to a candidate running for re-election, for example, who was talking with a potential supporter at a sidewalk café.

As a result, Fournier said, “we made changes that eliminated that possibility.”

The original version of the ordinance included in the definition of a personal solicitation the request for “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, a request to attend a religious service or meeting; or an offer of information about any of the foregoing).”

The latest revision strikes the language about “offer of information,” and concludes the definition of a personal solicitation with “or a request to attend a religious service or meeting.”

Michael Barfield. File photo
Michael Barfield. File photo

The new version also adds, “The display of a message or image worn, carried or held on or about one’s person, including but not limited to messages or images depicted or displayed on clothing, hats, jewelry, pins or similar adornments, bags, backpacks, umbrellas, briefcases, boxes or other similar containers, or on papers, flyers, posters or similar printed material does not constitute personal solicitation unless the person displaying such image or message affirmatively speaks, gestures or acts in a manner that constitutes a personal solicitation or aggressive solicitation.”

Subsequently, Fournier continued, Barfield raised an issue with the section of the proposed ordinance dealing with a person following or walking alongside someone who had turned down a solicitation from that person. The intention was to address actions that might be construed as threatening in such a situation, Fournier said. However, Barfield had pointed out that a person who had tried unsuccessfully to solicit someone might just be headed in the same direction, so the ordinance should not prohibit that.

Therefore, the revised law strikes the language in Section 23-8 that included “Following behind, ahead or alongside a person who walks away from the panhandler after being solicited” under the acts that constitute “Aggressive Personal Solicitation.”

Language in yet another part of that section was tweaked, Fournier noted. It originally included among aggressive acts “Either before, during or immediately after making the personal solicitation, using profane, abusive or personally threatening language or making any statement, gesture, or other communication which would case a reasonable person to be fearful that they would be subjected to an unwanted physical touching or harm to their person or their personal property …”

The new version of that clause says, “taking any action or making any gesture ….”

Fournier told the city commissioners he felt the changes “fairly address” the concerns Barfield raised. The City Attorney’s Office, therefore, recommended the board approve the latest revision.

“Actually,” he added, “it was a good thing we took this [item] off [the] Consent [Agenda] last time. … We have a much more refined, a better ordinance.”

With no member of the public appearing to offer remarks on the latest changes, Commissioner Alpert made a motion to approve the revised law. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

Water and sewer fees

Another matter concluded on a second reading this week was the reinstatement of city water and sewer fees.

The board voted unanimously to approve the action when the matter came up for a first reading on Feb. 16. In a brief presentation that day, city Utilities Director Mitt Tidwell pointed out that the fees had been suspended for four-and-a-half years in an effort to spur development, which declined during the Great Recession. He was not proposing any changes in the fees at this point, he said.

A chart shows the reinstated fees. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A chart shows the reinstated fees. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Results of a new analysis of water and sewer fees — to be undertaken this summer — will be brought to the board, Tidwell added, at which time the commissioners could consider updating the fees.

Last month, City Manager Tom Barwin noted that the fees will be in effect for any project that gets under way on or after April 4.