City rejects solicitation restrictions

People demonstrate against the panhanding ordinance by the city

Flying a sign is still no crime after Grand Junction City Council members Monday shot down two ordinances that would have restricted solicitation.

It became evident as council members met shortly before the official 7 p.m. meeting that they would likely ask staff to rewrite the ordinance regarding aggressive solicitation, particularly by vagrants. The ordinance contained descriptors that could be used to cite people for conducting door-to-door sales, among other possibilities. Council members voted unanimously to send that ordinance back to staff members to be rewritten.

The fate of another ordinance that made soliciting in a median or 50 feet from a controlled intersection was less clear before the meeting. It died with dissenting votes from Councilman Bill Pitts and Councilwoman Teresa Coons and will also go back to staff for revisions.

Both ordinances would have been enforced immediately as “emergencies,” which needed unanimous votes for approval.

Coons said she was comfortable keeping solicitors safe but that she wanted to make sure everyone was safe, and she also wanted to make sure 50 feet was an appropriate distance.

“If we’re concerned about people being unsafe in rights of way or medians, I’m not sure it matters why they’re there,” Coons said. “If it’s unsafe to solicit within 50 feet, it’s also unsafe to picket within 50 feet.”

Councilman Tom Kenyon wasn’t in favor of broadening the definition.

“I think people have the right to stand on the corner and wave their campaign signs,” he said.

Earlier in the day, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado e-mailed a two-page letter to council members, questioning the ordinances’ language and the city’s motive for proposing the ordinances. Soliciting funds is a First Amendment right, Colorado ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein said, which could be taken away for a safety concern.

City documents state the ordinances are designed to protect motorists and solicitors.

However, Silverstein wrote,  he found it suspect that the city and police have not created a tally to show whether solicitors have created a traffic hazard. The ordinances also say there are more solicitors “under the influence” and more solicitors in general in recent months,  but the documents and the city provide no numbers to back up that claim, Silverstein wrote.

Nearly 80 people, many holding cardboard signs throughout the meeting with slogans such as “Homelessness is not illegal” and “It’s about freedom,” gathered to protest the ordinances. A string of people testifying against the ordinances received applause and cheers after nearly every comment during the three hours devoted to discussion of the ordinances.

One woman testified she made $120,000 before becoming homeless and warned council members they could one day be in her shoes. Another said the ordinances were superfluous because other laws take care of such acts as being too noisy, stepping into the roadway or being drunk in public.

H.R. Gerard, who described himself as “Grand Junction’s resident homeless artist,” said many homeless solicitors have skills that the city could utilize.

“We’re thinking about appearances more than solutions. There are a bunch of buildings in this community that are run-down — let’s put these guys to work,” Gerard said.

The ordinances would not have outlawed solicitation. But they would have left few places to carry it out. The ordinances made it a misdemeanor to solicit with a false premise, in a parking lot, on a bus, at a train or bus stop, within 50 feet of an intersection with traffic signals or signs, in a street, on a median, while intoxicated or high, in groups of two or more, on private property without the owner’s permission, in exchange for services, aggressively, or within 15 feet of a pay phone, commercial vendor, building, public toilet, ATM, phone booth, check cashing or financial business entrance.

The places left to solicit in Grand Junction aren’t likely to be used, Homeward Bound Program Coordinator Jordan McGinnis said. Even moving down the block to get 50 feet away from an intersection could “cause even more problems than it does now” for driver and solicitor safety, McGinnis said when contacted earlier in the day.

“I don’t think the ordinance will stop the solicitors. They will probably move to Clifton or Fruita or somewhere outside city limits,” he said.

Grand Junction isn’t the first place in Colorado to consider a solicitation ordinance. Douglas County Commissioners made it illegal in 2002 to solicit on public streets. The Denver City Council in 2000 made it illegal to solicit donations aggressively, on public transportation, at night, while blocking a parking space, within 20 feet of an ATM, bus or rail stop, pay phone, or within 6 feet of a building entrance.


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