Commissioners vote on, fail part of GR panhandling ban

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Though a vote on the controversial ordinance restricting panhandling in the city of Grand Rapids had been removed from the City Commission’s agenda for Tuesday evening, commissioners did vote on part of it.

First Ward Commissioners Walt Gutowski and Dave Shaffer proposed voting on a measure that would have only banned panhandlers from approaching vehicles to beg, saying it was a safety issue, Gutowski told 24 Hour News 8.generic grand rapids city commission

They and Rosalynn Bliss of the Second Ward voted for the measure, but Mayor George Heartwell, Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear and the Second Ward’s Ruth Kelly opposed it. Third Ward Commissioner Elias Lumpkins was absent. Split 3-3, the measure failed.

The commission then voted to table discussion of the complete ordinance, which includes more restrictions. That proposed ordinance would make it illegal:

  • to solicit money within 15 feet of a public restroom or ATM.
  • to solicit money from the driver or passenger of a car along the street.
  • to block the path of or solicit money from someone going in or coming out of a public or private building or business.

The city attorney wrote the proposed Grand Rapids rules based on a similar ordinance in Kentwood. So far, Kentwood’s restrictions have stood up to at least one court challenge.

It appeared all the ‘i’s were dotted and the ‘t’s crossed heading to a vote on the complete proposal Tuesday night. But when 24 Hour News 8 asked Mayor Heartwell Tuesday morning how he planned to vote, he said there wouldn’t be one.

“I have determined to pull it from the agenda,” Heartwell said.

While the proposed ordinance appears to be up to legal challenge, it still walks a fine line between one person’s rights to free speech and another’s right not to be bothered by someone looking for a handout. Some commissioners still had questions on the legality of the ordinance and the ethics of imposing a standard that some consider unfair to the poor.

“What I had is individuals commissioners approach me saying ‘I’m concerned about this, I hadn’t thought about that,'” Heartwell said.

The mayor, Shaffer and Gutowski had planned to vote for the complete measure as of Tuesday morning. Gutowski made his decision after spending much of last weekend talking to panhandlers on Grand Rapids’ West Side. He said his biggest concern is for the safety of the panhandlers venturing into traffic to collect donations.

But four others on the commission — Lenear, Lumpkins, Kelly and Bliss — either planned to vote against it or were leaning that way as of Tuesday morning. So the proposal was removed from the agenda.

“Several commissioners had expressed an interest in digging deeper on this issue,” Heartwell said. “We’re trying to balance, I think, or juggle three balls: One the legal, one the ethical and one the practical. And there are questions commissioners have raised under each of those.”

Just how long it will take commissioners to work through the issue is anyone’s guess. Heartwell told 24 Hour News 8 he doesn’t know if those issues will be resolved this summer.

Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said the commission board made a motion to postpone the panhandling ordinance. They will be forming a group to look at the ordinance and will be meeting on June 10.

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