After Seattle Mayor McGinn’s veto of the pan-handling ordinance on April 23, the ultimate fate of the ordinance will be decided sometime over the next 30 days with a final vote from City Council. The pan-handling ordinance addresses aggressive solicitation, defined as “intimidating behavior targeted at another individual in a public place when combined with an act of solicitation” — it does not address general pan-handling. Under this ordinance, people who engage in aggressive panhandling would face a civil infraction and $50 fine, which could potentially turn into a criminal charge if either the fine is not paid or an appearance in court is missed.
Inside the Chinatown/International District, views of the ordinance remain mixed.
Maribeth Ellis is executive director of the Chinatown/International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), an organization that serves businesses and property owners in the International District (ID). She wrote an affidavit in favor of the panhandling legislation.
“The current level of aggressive solicitation is slowly choking the life out of this business district,” Ellis stated in her affidavit. Ellis said she continues to hear from others that they have stopped visiting the ID because it doesn’t feel safe, especially in the evening.
But when this legislation came to public knowledge, a wave of opponents spoke against the ordinance, including organizations like Real Change, the Seattle Community Council Federation and the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
Tim Burgess, a city councilmember who worked on this legislation for the past seven months and proposed the ordinance, said he respects that most of his opponents argued from a different perspective than his own, but unfortunately others grossly mischaracterized aspects of the ordinance.
He said one example was that opponents argued it would violate due-process protections.
“That’s just not true,“ Councilman Burgess said in an interview. “This ordinance followed all legal procedures.”
Burgess said that among supporters, the International District was strongly behind this legislation, and many supporters were members of the community, not just business organizations.
City Councilmember Nick Licata opposed the ordinance from the beginning, and published his insights about the legislation on Urban Politics, Licata’s public e-newsletter. He said this legislation is only a part of the solution; a more comprehensive package that will address the broader concerns of street safety is needed.
Michael Yee, the Chief Operating Officer of the Seattle Chinatown/International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) agrees. He said the proposed ordinance would have addressed only a small portion of the street-level activity that creates fear and intimidation on area streets. The ordinance would have been a step in the right direction, but the day-to-day problem of street-level drug dealing needs to be addressed.
“We obviously get (aggressive panhandlers),” Yee said over the phone. “How much is the question, and what are the other issues is the bigger question.”
Maiko Winkler-Chin, Executive Director of the SCIDpda agrees that other issues still concern her, such as drug usage and dealing on the streets. She believes this is the more detrimental behavior.
“I would like the city to spend their limited resources addressing [this],” Winkler- Chin said.
In his statement, Licata proposed two amendments to the legislation that would, first of all, provide funding to deploy additional beat patrols and improve outreach programs to the homeless. Licata wrote: “… without these amendments, the City will be offering only a false sense of increased security … without a longer term solution to reducing the need for panhandling on our streets.”
As one piece of supporting evidence, the Downtown Seattle Association presented a list of the 27 most prominent panhandlers; however, only three of them were labeled as aggressive pan-handlers.
“Good people have differing opinions about this legislation, as they do about street safety in general, “ said Burgess. “This is not an easy subject and I acknowledge that.”
In a public statement, Burgess said he respects the prerogative of the mayor’s position to veto the ordinance and is eager to work with the council to find solutions for crime and street disorder in Seattle.
Currently, aggressive pan-handling falls under the category of pedestrian interference and is considered a criminal misdemeanor in Seattle.
“I’m considered one of the kindest panhandlers around,” said Larry Wells, who panhandles primarily in the International District. He said he somewhat supports the ordinance as it affects his activities.
Wells said that there should be an ordinance against aggressive pan-handling because he has seen people give money reluctantly to get aggressive pan-handlers to stop bothering them, and kind panhandlers like him would be better able to do their job.
“If you’re going to be aggressive, that’s just like robbing them,” he said.
The ordinance is not completely dead yet, but unless one opponent changes their vote in favor of it, this piece of legislation will be tossed out.