The Iowa City city council is considering a more restrictive aggressive solicitation ordinance that would keep panhandlers and street musicians at least 15 feet from each other, would limit the area within the Ped Mall to something like a putting green on a miniature golf course for them to ask for help, and disallows the use of obscene language on solicitation signs. In asking the city council to reconsider the need for the more restrictive ordinance at their last meeting, I asked the members to look at current data to drive their decision, as they typically do when considering fiduciary matters. By a couple of the city council members’ own accounts they have been given no data that indicates any arrests or citations have occurred since the original aggressive solicitation ordinance was put in place over six months ago. That ordinance already prevents panhandlers from being within ten feet of store entrances and exits, fifteen feet from crosswalks, and twenty feet from ATMs, among other things.
Given as reasons to support the new ordinance is the request coming from the Downtown Association that there have been complaints by customers concerning some of the panhandlers bothering their customers and the effect is this hurts DTA businesses. Not to second guess the council or the DTA, but if there is a "problem" with aggressive panhandlers and street musicians on the Ped Mall, why aren't current laws being enforced?
The goal the City seems to be leaning toward is the systematic eradication of (or vastly limiting Ped Mall access to) those seen as "undesirable" by the business/real estate owners and others, whether they are acting in accordance with the current law or not. If the “data” that is driving their decision are the potential dollars and cents that businesses feel would come from a Disney-like public center, they should be straight forward and say so. If that is the intent, I’d go so far as suggesting that the City sell the Ped Mall to a real estate developer who could then privatize the space formally. At least then the real costs of doing business would not fall on the taxpayers.
As far as the notion that downtown is somehow unsafe? Why send the message to be afraid of downtown or the people in it. There is an old adage that works: “there is safety in numbers.” To ensure the numbers of people that are needed to support local businesses, incentive is needed to keep locals and out-of-towners discovering the specialness of downtown Iowa City. Look at what already brings people downtown: Friday night music, Saturday and Sunday night movies, art walks, theater, and festivals are all crowd pleasers. Why not work smarter to harness the power of individual creativity and community resources to convince any doubting Thomases that our downtown has a lot to offer and to support? Bring in a crowd and you won’t have to worry about a relatively small number of people.
To be clear, every businessperson is looking for a way to boost their bottom-line and that is her or his individual right. Panhandlers and business people probably at least this in common; they both want to make a living. But, as long as the Ped Mall is a public commons, the rule of law should balance a private request with the public good. The Iowa City bottom-line, in this case, should be to leave well enough alone.
Garry Klein is a member of FAIR! and Citizens for Community Improvement