Citing a spike in aggressive panhandling within city limits, the Fortuna City Council is preparing to adopt an ordinance prohibiting "aggressive and intrusive solicitation." City staff presented a version of the ordinance on Monday, and a second reading and adoption of the ordinance is scheduled for May 2.
Under the ordinance "... approaching or following pedestrians, the use of abusive language, unwanted physical contact, or the intentional blocking of pedestrian and vehicular traffic" will be banned. The city's attorney, David Tranberg, is also preparing language at the council's direction that will make it illegal for drivers to hand money to panhandlers from the windows of their car. Under the new ordinance, both parties could be cited with an infraction and fined up to $100. Eureka's panhandling ordinance, which shares similar language as well as bans on panhandling in certain public spaces, went into effect on April 13. Eureka Police Department spokesperson Brittany Powell confirmed that officers have made 12 citations since that date under the new ordinance.
The ordinance comes after several months of complaints from citizens and a public workshop to hear concerns. Mayor Sue Long said that issues with panhandling have escalated over the last two years, and that people are "on every corner." Several people in the Facebook group Eel Valley Crime Stoppers have complained about being hassled in store parking lots.
"They’re saying do something. They want it stopped. They don’t feel safe," Long said just after the public hearing. "I think some of [the panhandlers] are pretty aggressive. When women have little children and are buckling them into the car seat and are approached, they feel vulnerable."
At the April 18 city council meeting, Long said, "We are a generous community, and that has led to our demise."
During public comment, business owner Dennis Wendt said "Ladies are afraid to go to the mall because there are people sitting there with their dogs."
Similar ordinances have inspired lawsuits in cities such as Arcata and Sacramento, but Tranberg said that he believes Fortuna would have ample defense should anyone raise suit.
"This ordinance and similar ordinances that the state of California have adopted is an attempt to strike a balance between people’s free speech and the public’s right to be assured that their safety and their ability to walk and drive around the community are not impacted," he said during the city council meeting.
In a phone interview, Tranberg added that the language of the ordinance allows the city to avoid liability should they be accused of not offering equal protection to all citizens.
"They'll say,'You don’t cite the Girl Scouts selling cookies in front of Safeway.' The city’s response would be if they were standing in a median or at intersection, they run the same risk of being cited as anyone else," he said. Whether the police officers enforcing the ordinance will consider "standing at an intersection" the "intentional blocking ... of traffic" remains to be seen.
The city council is expected to direct the police department to hold off on enforcing the ordinance until after some outreach and education has been offered. Chief Bill Dobberstein did not return our calls for this story.