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Grand Rapids City Commission postpones vote on panhandling restrictions

Mayor George Heartwell and City Commissioners will come up with a two to three month process to improve proposed restrictions.

After debating at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, the Commission decided to postpone its vote on an aggressive solicitation ordinance in order to come up with restrictions that will gain wider public support.

Mayor George Heartwell led the motion to postpone the vote, citing concerns raised about needing more information and the legality of the ordinance and “compelling” testimonials.

Federal courts ruled panhandling as a First Amendment right, but the city’s proposed ordinance on aggressive solicitation would place restrictions on how and where people can beg for money:

  • no begging in an “accosting” manner or by continuing to beg after a person has refused the request
  • no begging within 15 feet of a public restroom
  • no begging within 15 feet of an ATM machine or a building that has an ATM in it
  • no begging on a public bus or within 15 feet of a bus stop
  • no begging from anybody waiting in line to enter a building
  • no begging from any driver or passenger on a public street

Second Ward Commissioners Ruth Kelly and Rosalynn Bliss and Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear cited concerns with the language of the ordinance.

“People wanted more specific information so that it’d be clear if you were breaking the law or not,” Lenear said.

After Heartwell suggested postponing the vote on the panhandling ordinance, First Ward Commissioner Dave Shaffer motioned to take out the provision regarding begging from drivers for consideration for a vote.

“This is the provision of the ordinance that I believe makes the most sense,” Shaffer said in an email prior to Tuesday night’s meeting. “My concern is keeping people safe in regard to traffic and cars.”

The commission voted 3-3, with Shaffer, Bliss and First Ward Commissioner Walt Gutowski in favor. Heartwell, Kelly and Lenear were opposed. Third Ward Commissioner Elias Lumpkins was absent at the meeting.

Since the vote failed to get majority, the provision on begging from motorists remains as part of the aggressive solicitation ordinance that has been postponed for further review.

“Because of the large number of constituent responses on this issue we've decided to postpone our decision and engage members of the community in a more thorough vetting process before making any decisions,” Kelly said in an email after the meeting.

Suggestions made during public comments offered methods to curb aggressive solicitation, including the limiting of alcohol purchases, the use of identification cards and enforcing an existing ordinance against jaywalking.

“Some really creative, innovative suggestions were heard, and that’s the kind of creative talk that’s necessary,” Lenear said. 

Mayor Heartwell estimated that “a good process is going to take two to three months.”

The commission will decide on a process and timeline to move forward with at the next meeting on Tuesday, June 10. 

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