Panhandling challenge fails in Bennington
BENNINGTON -- An amendment to a town ordinance that restricts "panhandling" and people sleeping in their cars will go into effect unchallenged, as not enough signatures were collected for it to go to a vote.
The deadline for the petition was Wednesday at 5 p.m., said Town Clerk Tim Corcoran. The petition needed 430 signatures from registered voters. It came in with 108 signatures -- 95 that were proved to be valid.
The amendment drew a great deal of debate and protest both before and after it was passed by the Select Board on Nov. 25.
The law takes effect on Jan. 24, said Town Manager Stuart Hurd.
It takes 60 days for an amended bylaw to take effect, which led to many believing that there was 60 days in which to petition for a vote, said Mary Gerisch, a member of the Bennington County Homeless Coalition who drafted the petition and worked to have it circulated.
Gerisch said when she contacted the Vermont Secretary of State to make sure the petition was worded properly, she learned the window to get it submitted to the Town Clerk was only 44 days. If the petition had been handed in on time, the board would have had 60 days to hold a special vote.
"Frankly, I also thought it was 60 days," said Hurd. "We've never had a petition before."
Roughly 40 petition sheets were handed out, according to Gerisch, but only 18 were returned to the Town Clerk. She said she tried to spread the word that the window was only 44 days, but to no avail. The holiday season likely also contributed, she said.
"I really believe we had enough signatures if everyone had turned their petition in," she said.
The issue sparked a meaningful debate within the town about poverty and homelessness, Gerisch said, adding that the board still has the power to amend the law, and nothing is stopping it from taking other measures to address poverty in the community.
Hurd told the board in the fall that he drafted the ordinance amendment after hearing from the Better Bennington Corporation and Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce that tourists were complaining about panhandlers in the downtown area. Both sides of the issue were spoken for at a series of board meetings, and after the board passed the amendment 5-1 approximately 70 people staged a protest at the Four Corners.
The amendment is to an existing ordinance about the use of public ways.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.
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