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Thu, Dec. 12

Prescott ordinance changes aim to quell aggressive panhandling

PRESCOTT -  In an effort to "get a handle" on a panhandling scene that officials say is becoming offensive to residents and visitors, the Prescott City Council approved a number of changes this week to its aggressive solicitation restrictions.

City Attorney Jon Paladini said Tuesday that the legal department had reviewed the existing code after hearing requests from the City Council and concerns from the public.

Councilmen Charlie Arnold and Chris Kuknyo both brought up examples of concern.

Arnold said he had walked around the downtown on a recent evening and had been solicited three times.

And Kuknyo told of an instance in which a homeless man had become abusive over an encounter involving his dog.

"Insults, abusive language...these are the things that are happening on our square," Kuknyo said. "No one cares if someone says, 'can you spare a dime?' but it's getting too organized and disrespectful when you say 'no,' or when you ask a person to move on from in front of your business or place of work."

The councilmen worried that the prevalence of aggressive panhandling could discourage tourism.

"You read the travel blogs, and this is something that comes up," Arnold said.

Added Kuknyo: "I don't think it's out of control, but I think if we don't get a handle on it, it will be."

The new language more specifically defines what constitutes aggressive panhandling. For instance, it clarifies that it is illegal to solicit money or things of value:

• In an aggressive manner in a public area.

• Within 15 feet of an entrance or exit of a bank or ATM.

• Immediately adjacent to the entrance of a business in a manner interfering with ingress and egress to the business.

• On a public sidewalk, street or other public grounds in a manner that impedes or obstructs the free flow of pedestrian traffic during a special event or parade.

Of the proposed changes, Police Chief Jerald Monahan told the council: "It does appear to give your police department a pretty significant tool to use to address aggressive panhandling."

He added that the police department plans to approach the enforcement of the adjusted ordinance "with balance - understanding the sensitivity to those individuals in our community."

While the ordinance change got council approval, the support was not unanimous. Councilman Jim Lamerson voted against the changes, after cautioning against "profiling" panhandlers as those who are homeless.

Homeless advocate Daniel Mattson agreed, noting that some of the aggressive panhandlers are not homeless, but rather "are after alcohol." Others, he added, are trying to raise money for gasoline for the vehicles in which they live.

Paladini responded that the proposed changes target specific behavior rather than classes of people.

Retired Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Ralph Hess brought up a number of legal issues with the ordinance change. Hess, who previously worked as an assistant city attorney, questioned the constitutionality of the proposed wording that included "or other business" in the prohibition of soliciting within 15 feet of an entrance or exit of a bank or financial institution.

Hess maintained that a "government interest" must exist in order for the city to restrain free speech. "What is the significant government interest?" he asked.

The council ultimately agreed to remove the wording pertaining to "other business" from the portion of the code that prohibits soliciting within 15 feet of the entrance of a bank or financial institution.

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