BENNINGTON -- An ordinance amendment that would curb panhandling did not get a vote at Monday's Select Board meeting.
With three of the board members absent and there being revisions to consider, board Chairman Joseph Krawczyk said the vote would go on the agenda for Nov. 11, the next regular meeting.
The proposed panhandling restrictions are in the form of amendments to "Article 17 Improper use of Public Way and Abatement of Public Nuisances," an existing town ordinance. The amendment prohibits aggressive "soliciting," commonly called panhandling, and bars it from happening within 15 feet of an entrance to a business or automated teller machine (ATM). It has a number of other restrictions as well.
The revised amendments presented Monday by Town Manager Stuart Hurd struck language defining "loitering." It also removed the words, "or soliciting the sale of goods or services," from the definition of "soliciting," and underscored language saying the ordinance was not meant to affect activity permitted under the vendor's ordinance.
Judith Pennock, office manager at Evan's News, 434 Main St., described an incident she witnessed on Main Street on Columbus Day weekend. A car carrying three elderly women parked across the street from Evan's News and while the women were looking around they were approached by a panhandler. They got back in the car and left, she said.
"We can't afford to have that happen at all," Pennock said, saying the shops that depend on tourism need every dollar they make, and the October season is key to their survival.
Ron Conroy, who spoke out against the amendment at last meeting, said the ban violates the First Amendment. "The town of Bennington cannot regulate or control was solicitors say, or to whom they speak, nor can it put the interests or desires of its business owners and tourists ahead of the constitutional rights if its people," he said, reading from a statement.
He said there are already state laws under Title 13 that already prohibit the problem behaviors being described by the ban's supporters and said the amendment would be redundant. After some board members expressed support of it, he called the amendment "disgusting" and unconstitutional, which Krawczyk said he took issue with as a veteran. Conroy responded that he is also a veteran and then the conversation became tense, but not heated.
The ban was put forward by Hurd at the board's last meeting. He said his office had received complaints from tourists via the Better Bennington Corporation and the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce about panhandlers intimidating them. John Shannahan, executive director of the BBC, told the Banner he has witnessed panhandlers purchase cigarettes and lottery tickets with their donations, and has spoken to gas station owners and others about these people panhandling near their stores.
Most board members present appeared to support the amendment, at least to some degree. Board member Jim Carroll said he felt many of those who are panhandling would not be found competent if they ever went to court and could be told to go away by business owners or police.
Board member Sharyn Brush said the ordinance would give added weight or "teeth" to the police in getting panhandlers to move on.
One board member, John McFadden, suggested rewording the ordinance to put the onus on those giving money to panhandlers. He told a story about a lake he used to visit where people would feed the ducks from a private beach. It became a problem for the beach's owners, who put a sign telling people not to feed the ducks. McFadden said this would give people being solicited a ready-made "out" if a panhandler approached them.
Other board members said the same enforcement problems would exist as before and it would be problematic to make the tourist population aware of such a law.
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