Santa Fe’s rules about panhandling would get tougher under a proposal making its way through the City Council process.
Elected officials on the city Finance Committee on Monday discussed a measure that would make it illegal to conduct “passive panhandling” in traffic medians. But after officials posed questions to the city attorney, councilors asked for further refinement from staff.
The committee, the third to vet the proposal this summer, expects to consider the idea again at its meeting Aug. 13.
“The better we define or take issue with these kinds of things at the committee level, hopefully they will go better at the council,” said Councilor Carmichael Dominguez, chairman of the Finance Committee.
Late in 2010, the city adopted new regulations about panhandling, replacing an unenforceable and unconstitutional blanket ban on begging.
Police Chief Ray Rael said the “additional tool” that made it illegal to ask for money at cash machines, bus stops and other locations was welcome, but it didn’t and won’t have the effect of eliminating panhandling. The rules did establish clear boundaries that help police rein in actions that are deemed too aggressive, he said.
“The panhandlers have also become educated,” said Rael. “They are minimizing, generally speaking, approaches in front of ATMs and places like that. Is it a cure-all? No. You still have people who are not aware of the ordinance or who are going to ignore it no matter what.”
Rael said police responses such as citations for panhandling have increased since the regulations went into play. Between July 2008 and June 2010, the city recorded 46 such citations, he said, compared to 89 between July 2010 and this month.
The city already bans active panhandling in traffic medians, but “passive panhandling” is permitted. That’s defined as a person who is standing or sitting with a sign or other indication that a donation is being sought. The practice, according to a memo from the city’s legal department, presents traffic safety hazards both for motorists and those asking for money.
Rael said the proposed change that allows police to remove panhandlers from medians would tighten a loophole, he said.
“What I’ve heard is that people generally don’t just sit there passively,” he said. “They are stepping into traffic and creating a hazard, and this change is trying to avoid the problem of having an accident or distracting the driver.”
City Attorney Geno Zamora told councilors Monday that the rule change is meant to to correct inadvertent “unequal treatment” in the 2010 rules that differentiated between panhandling that is passive, nonverbal, and active, where an oral request is delivered to a passerby. If the change — sponsored by Councilors Ron Trujillo, Patti Bushee, Peter Ives and Bill Dimas — is approved, both kinds of begging will be regulated by the city code and subject to law enforcement if violations occur, he said.
Personal liberty watchdogs have closely followed panhandling regulations in Santa Fe and elsewhere. The ACLU, for example, successfully challenged Albuquerque’s 2004 effort to prohibit anyone asking for money in certain areas of the city. Albuquerque officials modified the ordinance to comply with a court order, banning panhandling in those areas only after dark.
Downtown Santa Fe shopkeeper Valerie Fairchild said there has been less harassment of her customers at Fairchild and Co. on West San Francisco Street since the rule changes in 2010, but she hopes the city finds a way to ban panhandling in tourist areas especially.
“The police enforce where they can, but they just keeping coming back,” she said of panhandlers. “As soon as policemen leave, there is another one who comes and squats.”
The city should also consider sending more animal control officers to inspect for proper licenses among people she says are “using dogs as shills” to seek money on the streets.
“I’d like to see a ban completely,” she said. “That is what is missing. I like the American Civil Liberties Union, but these people push free speech to the limit, to the point of harassment. I have several clients who are still afraid to come downtown. If other cities are able to put a stop to it and write it in their ordinances, I don’t know why we can’t.”
Councilor Chris Calvert said he had concerns about regulating all kinds of sign-carrying. “We are talking about freedom of speech issues, are we not?” he asked. “How is sitting passively on a street corner any more of a safety hazard than a demonstrator waving a placard?”
Zamora said those asking for money are trying to get people in cars to stop and interact with them, whereas those holding political signs, for example, are trying to garner simple observations.
Calvert said later that the answer didn’t seem logical to him.
Even sponsors of the measure didn’t seem completely behind it at Monday’s hearing. Bushee asked Zamora whether the rules apply to someone who is offering goods in trade for “donations,” or to performers. Bushee said she wanted to the measure to have “one more pass” at Finance Committee before it gets to the full City Council for a final vote.
Dimas said he didn’t think current regulations were clear enough. Newspaper vendors, he said, impede traffic and should be regulated in the same way.
Contact Julie Ann Grimm at 986-3017 or email@example.com