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In heated meeting, Missoula City Council bans 'aggressive' panhandling
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In heated meeting, Missoula City Council bans 'aggressive' panhandling

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Rules that limit panhandling take effect Tuesday with Missoula City Council action Monday night.

At its regular meeting, the council approved an ordinance that places restrictions on panhandling and a corresponding "emergency" law that takes effect right away. It did so on a split vote and with heated discussion.

"You all are getting a little hot here," Mayor John Engen told council members at one point in the meeting.

The ordinance prohibits begging in an "aggressive manner," such as touching a person without asking, following someone being solicited and using violence. It prohibits telling lies to get money, and it also bans soliciting in some public places, such as near ATMs and within six feet of an entrance to a building.

Councilors voted 7-4 to adopt the main ordinance, with opponents saying it appeared the rules wouldn't be equally enforced among all solicitors. They didn't want to pass a law that inadvertently banned the kinds of solicitations many community members support, such as high schoolers holding up signs for free car washes. The following council members voted against the ordinance: Jason Wiener, Pam Walzer, Stacy Rye and Marilyn Marler. Councilman Bob Jaffe was absent.

Wiener, who represents the downtown area, said he could back the rules that clamp down on aggressive acts. But he suggested striking the portion of the law that outlines the places and distances where people may and may not solicit - aggressively or otherwise.

He said with a "wink and a nod," it appeared that part of the ordinance was going to be selectively enforced. And the new rules mean even peaceful people can't ask for anything at all in some places, like 20 feet from from an outdoor patio or cafe.

"They can't even ask me once, whether it's for a book or a dime or my eternal salvation," Wiener said.

Engen said that part of the ordinance - Section 5, or "soliciting in certain places" - represented much of the work of the authors, the Panhandling Working Group. And practically speaking, he said police officers were not going to spend time cutting off high schoolers from soliciting by holding up car wash signs.

Thus, the uneven enforcement, pointed out other councilors who opposed the ordinance. Walzer and Rye also tried to carve out parts of the ordinance, and Marler expressed strong support for rules that would apply to people across the board.

"I would greatly hesitate to call it a gantlet of solicitation because I don't think there is one," Rye said of downtown Missoula.

Councilman Dick Haines, though, said one thing plenty of people are afraid to express aloud. The complaints aren't only about the aggression, but they're about the kind of people who are asking for money downtown.

He said some shop owners tell him their customers don't want to visit because of the street people - and those customers vote with their feet and stay away from downtown stores.

"We've got enough vacancies on Main Street and Broadway, and we don't need any more," said Haines, who voted for the ordinance.

The emergency ordinance allows for 30 days of education and no penalties - normally a misdemeanor and fine not to exceed $100 for a conviction. Walzer voted in favor of the emergency law because of the education component.

On the streets starting Tuesday, Missoula Police Department Chief Mark Muir said officers would be looking for people who don't understand that they can't ask for money in certain places. They also would have to explain to people who file complaints that panhandling isn't altogether banned because it's constitutionally protected speech.

The Public Safety and Health Committee takes up a companion ordinance on "pedestrian interference" at 8 a.m. next Monday in City Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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