Some cities in Humboldt County have adopted ordinances against aggressive panhandling and a similar law may soon be approved for unincorporated areas.
At its May 3 meeting, the county’s Board of Supervisors directed staff to draft a panhandling ordinance and have it ready for consideration by late June. But when an ordinance emerges, its provisions will be directed at all forms of “aggressive solicitation” to avoid legal challenges based on free speech rights.
Advanced by supervisors Ryan Sundberg and Rex Bohn, the ordinance proposal builds on laws that are already place in Eureka and more recently, Fortuna.
A 2012 City of Arcata panhandling ordinance was mostly struck down by a Superior Court judge but the legal challenge against it didn’t focus on its prohibition of aggressive forms of panhandling.
Board Chair Mark Lovelace said a county ordinance should be clearly directed at aggressive behavior. “That may or may not have anything to do with the panhandling, so I think how exactly this ends up being defined is going to be the critical piece,” he continued.
Lovelace said the problem with Arcata’s ordinance was that it singled out panhandling for activities like using signs, which have free speech protections.
The ordinance in Eureka has withstood legal challenges and Sundberg said a county ordinance can be modelled after it and address safety issues.
“It’s just not safe in certain spots and I think this one will be different from Arcata’s in that it will be built around safety,” he continued.
County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck confirmed that anti-panhandling laws are legally sound if they address “time, place and manner” issues and the “fear factor” of aggressive behavior. He added that Arcata’s ordinance failed to meet the test of legality because it “got into content of the speech and that just doesn’t fly.”
Supervisor Estelle Fennell said that based on what people have told her about their experiences, she feels “very strongly” that the county should have a law that facilitates enforcement against “aggressive solicitation.”
“That is the part that is so difficult to deal with,” she continued, adding that she’s heard many accounts of people “trying to walk down the streets of Garberville and having to pass through a clump of people stopping their way.”
Fennell said it’s fortunate that there’s been “community pushback” in the Garberville area with the volunteer Locals on Patrol group but having an ordinance will “take us a long way toward correcting a situation that seems so difficult to deal with.”
County Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen told supervisors that with the county budget coming up for adoption in June, a draft ordinance presentation should be put off until later that month.
Sundberg made a motion to have staff come back with a “panhandling ordinance” modelled after Eureka’s and Fortuna’s by late June. But at Blanck’s advice, the motion’s language was changed to refer to “aggressive solicitation” to avoid singling out panhandling.
The amended motion was unanimously approved.