Monday, August 15, 2005

Protesters await City Council vote on panhandling

Tents and protest signs dotted the front lawn this morning outside Atlanta City Hall, where activists and homeless spent the night awaiting an afternoon city council vote on whether to ban panhandling.
About 50 people were on hand, including activists Alvin Dollar and Ronald Zackary, who said they were against the measure.
THE STORY SO FAR• Previously: Members of the City Council have postponed debate and a vote on legislation that would prohibit aggressive panhandling in a section of downtown Atlanta.• The latest: The issue goes before the council Monday.• What's next: Council members may vote to approve the proposed legislation or change some of its details.
"I didn't sleep too good, with all the TV lights and the noise," said Zackary. "But what this vote is about is whether Atlanta is going to punish people who need services, [and not give them] more problems than they already have."
"There were many regressive moves against the poor in the 1960s ... This is a step backward [to that time]," Dollar, a former city employee, said while holding an early-morning cup of coffee.
He said every city has poor people and that passerby have the option not to give them money.
Lonnie Crutchfield said he was arrested last month in front of Underground Atlanta for politely asking a man for "a little change" who turned out to be a plainclothes cop.
"It was entrapment," claimed Crutchfield. "The man was standing near me with his wallet out, and was counting his money. I asked like I always do, 'little change, sir? and God Bless you.' He showed a badge and arrested me. I spent the night in jail, and was released for time served."
Zackary, who leads a ministry, said the city can support an aquarium" but we can't put up services for poor people."
"Treat people the way you would like to be treated," Zackary said.
Nearby, a sign read, "Gateway to jail." A large plastic yellow banner, complete with an illustration of a shark, on the City Hall lawn read, "Where fish are treated better than the poor. They have a new $200 million home. We have nothin.'"
Vote expected this afternoon
The debate about whether to ban panhandling in downtown Atlanta goes before the City Council this afternoon, following several postponed votes during the past two months.
A couple of council members who helped stall the measure hinted that they might be willing to support it this time. That could end a stalemate that began in June, when opponents turned out in force to rail against the proposal by Mayor Shirley Franklin's administration.
"In its current form, I'm supportive of it," Councilman Ceasar Mitchell said Thursday. He was among eight of the 15 council members who voted last month to table the item.
The legislation is backed by business leaders such as Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, who is investing $200 million in downtown Atlanta to build the Georgia Aquarium, which will be among the world's largest.
By the time the aquarium opens in November, Marcus wants restrictions on panhandling in place so tourists won't be too intimidated to visit.
The legislation would make it illegal to verbally ask for money in an area downtown that is roughly the shape of a triangle. Proponents say it is targeted at con artists who pretend to be poor to elicit donations.
It has support from business leaders, as well as residents and workers downtown, who say they oppose paying a "sidewalk toll" when they venture into the streets. Many are optimistic that the new law will pass.
"We expect it to pass," said Ray Connolly, a bartender who owns rental property downtown and runs a small group called Citizens for a Greater Atlanta. "We feel that the people who have spoken out against it really didn't have much to say."
The city's law department studied how other cities, such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., designed similar bans that survived court challenges. City lawyers contend that their so-called "tourist triangle" is a small enough slice of the city to satisfy judges who worry about encroachments on free speech. The ban allows panhandling with signs.
Still, critics say it is unconstitutional and harsh to society's weakest.
"From a moral perspective, this is going to include homeless individuals, and it can ultimately result in criminalizing their activity," said Avi Brisman, a lawyer with the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, a service referral group. "It will get the panhandlers who are frauds, but it will also get people who genuinely need a buck."
Both sides have been pressuring the council. A loose-knit coalition of advocates for the poor and homeless has worked against the ordinance, herding disheveled people into the council chambers to speak out against it and staging protests and rallies.
The business community, meanwhile, has been busy on the phone.
"We have talked to council members that did not vote to pass it last time," said Carlotta Ungaro, an official with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. She said some were leaning toward supporting the ban when the council meets Monday. "I have not gotten a firm 'yes,' so I hope so, but I'm not sure," she said.
Councilman H. Lamar Willis voted to table the item last month. He said Wednesday that he couldn't commit to supporting the legislation in its current form, "but I am going to vote for whatever ends up before me, probably," he said. Then, he added, "I'm not saying it's going to end up before me on Monday."
Amendments could alter the ordinance radically.
Council President Lisa Borders elicited written proposals from opponents. Suggestions range from eliminating the ban to expanding it to include neighborhoods beyond downtown.
The legislation already has changed significantly since it was first read on the council floor June 6. At that time, it included a secondary ban area that went beyond the currently proposed boundaries. In subsequent meetings, that secondary area was struck from the legislation.
The current draft would ban panhandling from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive north to Ralph McGill Boulevard and from Marietta Street east to Piedmont Avenue.
Last month, the council also included proposals by Councilman Mitchell that softened the ordinance. Originally, a first offense would have brought a citation to appear in court, but Mitchell persuaded the council to give police officers discretion to issue a warning instead. He also prevailed with an amendment to expunge all records related to panhandling offenses after one year to eliminate any barrier a police record might pose for future employment.
Other ideas are being discussed, including one that would extend the ban to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site east of downtown.
Mitchell said he thinks there is a "good chance" panhandling will come up for a decisive vote today, though he isn't predicting anything.
Just two council members can pull the ordinance off the tabled list and trigger a debate, Mitchell noted.
"Anything can happen at that point."
- Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

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