Madison Common Council: Panhandling ordinance change brings long debate
Post by Emily Mills on 8/8/2012 12:30pm
Mayor Soglin’s proposed ordinance that would ban panhandling from State Street and the Capitol Square came in for lengthy and passionate debate at the Madison Common Council’s August meeting Tuesday night – with the sleeper hit of the evening being a long and sometimes heated discussion about how the city assesses fees to property owners for the installation of public works like traffic lights.
An ordinance related to how taxi cabs will be allowed to search for fares on State Street overnight was only up for referral and therefor closed to public comments. That issue has also come in for a great deal of criticism from cab drivers and supporters of transit on the street, especially at bar time. The original proposal would have significantly curtailed the ability of taxis to look for riders, but new language recommended for adoption by the Downtown Coordinating Committee and others would give cabs from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. to cruise the street.
The ordinance was ultimately sent back to both the Plan and Pedestrian/Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Commissions, the only after several alders argued that the process was being unnecessarily drawn out and complicated by further referrals.
The new panhandling ordinance proposed by Mayor Soglin and co-sponsored by Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents most of State Street, would ban the practice entirely from the thoroughfare, as well as all of Capitol Square.
Panhandling is only currently allowed in a designated spot along the 500 block of State Street, as well as certain pockets along the square. The changes would prohibit the practice within 150 feet of any business with a liquor license.
The item had been up for debate at the last Common Council meeting in July but was referred after concerns about the language being so vague it might also ban street musicians and other artists. The City Attorney’s office ultimately decided on returning to the original language of the ordinance as being the “most clear.”
When asked how the 150 foot number had been arrived at City Attorney Michael May explained that there is “no bright line in terms of what’s too far from a location and too close. We got uncomfortable if it got much more over 150 feet. We thought 150 feet was within the range of reasonableness, though I can’t guarantee that a challenge to that number wouldn’t succeed. We made a judgment call based on previous cases.”
Downtown business owners and Police Captain Carl Gloede all spoke in support of the ordinance change, most citing what was seen as increasing incidents of public intoxication, urination, fights, and harassment of pedestrians by the panhandlers.
“We have a small group of individuals – around 100 – that generate the most number of police calls,” Gloede explained. “We know most of the chronics by name because we deal with them daily.”
Gloede said that they encounter many of these individuals early in the morning when they’re still sober and can “talk to them, interact,” but that by afternoon, once they’ve made some money panhandling, they’ve spent it on alcohol and “transform into totally different people.”
“What it comes down to is personal choices, the individual choices they make every day whether or not to go to these resources we offer in the city or to go back to alcohol or drugs,” Gloede added.
May clarified that in addition to the new language not applying to buskers or street theater, it also wouldn’t apply to the homeless people selling copies of Street Pulse or to someone simply standing and holding a cup full of coins.
The attorney’s office worked to clarify the definition of what it means to “procure” a handout, which they indicated meant verbally asking someone else for money or goods. The ordinance change would therefor extend the ban on both aggressive and non-aggressive panhandling to the entire street, based on that definition.
Alders Lisa Subek and Scott Resnick strongly questioned why the new ordinance was needed, given that the city already has a prohibition on menacing and aggressive panhandling on the books.
Gloede argued that the new language created more of a buffer zone for employees and patrons of area businesses, who are currently dealing with chronic harassment when they try to enter or exit an establishment near where panhandling typically takes place.
The punishment for panhandling is a civil forfeiture, but Subek wondered what the track record was on enforcement and actual payment. “If somebody doesn’t pay that fine, what happens?” she asked.
An assistant city attorney explained that they used to issue warrants for non-payment, but now with “the over-crowding in the jails” they typically try to avoid that unless the fines are for much larger amounts, instead referring offenders to an intercept program.
“I strongly recommend that you go down to the 500 block some night and spend a few hours just watching what happens,” Soglin argued. “Stopping the behavior is the desire; it’s not writing a citation.”
Several members of and advocates for the homeless community also spoke at the meeting, all vehemently opposed to the change.
Allen Barkoff said there were more creative ways of dealing with the issue of panhandling than passing more ordinances. “The City attorney says the ordinance would not apply to street musicians, so maybe panhandlers should just hold a kazoo in their mouth to get by it,” he joked.
“Yeah if you’ve got a nice suit and tie on feel free to bum a cigarette off anyone, anytime you want,” noted William Gruber. “But if you don’t got the right clothes on, don’t try it…I don’t think there’s any kind of danger you have to worry about other than you have to see what’s going on in the world. You can shove ‘em to the side and quit looking, or you can jump up and start doing something, stop this ridiculousness.”
Recounting the nights he spent with homeless people sleeping around the Capitol Square, local resident Edward Kuharski said that those individuals already had to deal with harassment and even violence directed toward them by young, college-aged students passing by at night. He implored the city not to further add to the problems faced by the homeless in the area.
“Those who do this to people who are struggling to survive and have nothing are sick and wrong and I’m ashamed to share a city with them,” Kuharski said. “I want the city to be constructive, not obstructive.”
Ald. Bridget Maniaci wondered if the new language would also apply to groups like WISPIRG, which actively solicit donations of money along the street.
“We don’t think that’s covered by this – or collecting signatures on petitions,” May answered. “WISPIRG is also signing up people for memberships, so you’re receiving something in return for the donation.”
Soglin took to the speaker’s stand at one point near the end of the discussion to make his own argument more clear.
“There are alternatives and we will come up with them, but at some point, just as we say in regards to violence, there is going to be conformity to community standards,” the mayor said. “We’re not saying everyone has to think and act alike. We’re not saying there isn’t room for pirates and scoundrels in this city. God knows we’ve got a lot of ‘em and we love them. But when it comes to violence, and substance abuse in public, it has to end. Particularly when people are posing a danger to themselves and others.”
Verveer pointed out that he’d spoken to potential business owners who didn’t even want to sign leases on properties downtown until the new ordinance had been passed.
“This doesn’t solve anything, I realize that, I acknowledge it fully,” Verveer conceded. “I’m all for outreach education…but the reality is that things are very, very bad on State Street. I can’t speak for the rest of our neighborhoods that each of you represents, but it is not pleasant in the State Street corridor. So I really hope sooner rather than later we can provide this relief for the area.”
There was enough pushback from alders, however, to see the ordinance referred back to the mayor’s office for further refinement.
Emily Mills is Editor-At-Large for Dane101, as well as Editor of Our Lives Magazine. She is also a freelance writer, photographer, actor, and musician (drummer and singer in local band Little Red Wolf). Originally from several states up and down the Midwest Emily has called Madison home since 2000. Contact her at