A draft city ordinance that would legally equate panhandlers with Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Salvation Army bell-ringers in an effort to stamp out aggressive solicitation downtown got a positive reception Wednesday from a Bakersfield City Council committee.
The council’s Legislative and Litigation Committee voted 3-0 to have the full council give the ordinance its first reading at its March 5 meeting, after sections of the ordinance defining false solicitation — saying you need money for gas, for example, when it’s really for something else — and solicitation on public vehicles, such as buses, are added.
If not delayed, it could become law by the end of March, after a second reading and approval and being signed into law by Mayor Harvey Hall.
If approved by the city council, the ordinance would create a new section of Bakersfield Municipal Code targeting “Panhandling/Soliciting,” making it illegal to “solicit in an aggressive manner in any public place.”
Aggressive solicitation would become a misdemeanor or an infraction, depending upon the situation, within 20 feet of banks, savings and loans, credit unions, check-cashing businesses, and ATMS.
It also would be a crime to solicit on buses or public transportation vehicles, in public or private parking lots or parking structures after dark, or on street medians.
City officials acknowledged the additional work the ordinance would create for the Bakersfield Police Department, the necessity of catching violators in the act — and the inherent contradiction in putting the purveyors of Thin Mints and Samoas on par with panhandlers.
But City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said that in order for Bakersfield to crack down on panhandlers without being sued for violating anyone’s Constitutional rights, all groups must be treated equally.
“I think it’s necessary because the message is the same. The message is ‘I’m asking for something and I want something in return’,” Gennaro said after the meeting. “How to analyze these under constitutional law, that’s exactly the argument I don’t want to get into — that we’re punishing someone for one message and we’re not punishing the rest. Because they’re cuter.”
Committee Chairman Terry Maxwell said in an interview that sometimes applying the rules equally means not everyone is happy.
“I think we made the right decision. I’m sorry that this does affect some of the organizations that do tremendous charitable work as well as building the future of our country, but I think that there are other ways those people can get their message and can perform the functions that they want to perform,” said Maxwell, who is Ward 2 councilman. “There are other ways of selling Girl Scout cookies.”
Cathy Ferguson, CEO for the Girl Scouts of Central California South, which includes Bakersfield, said the organization’s annual public cookie sales last for just a month, and are a tightly regulated fundraiser that pays for science projects and educational trips.
“They have to have permission to be there (outside the front door of a business). And in most cases it helps the business. It drives traffic into the business,” Ferguson said in an interview, questioning why the Girl Scouts would even be mentioned in the same breath as panhandlers. “Those people are doing nothing to help the community. The Scouts do everything to help the community.“
A Boy Scouts employee in Bakersfield declined to comment.
Police Chief Greg Williamson said enforcement of the ordinance could prove difficult and not just because his department, which has budgetary approval for 389 sworn officers, has only about 355 sworn officers on active duty due to difficulties finding qualified officer candidates.
Williamson also said unless aggressive panhandling takes place in front of a police officer, the victim must file a report, which police would send to the Kern County District Attorney’s office for a decision on whether to file charges.
“The instance must happen in front of the officer, and if there was an arrest made I think there is a limited scope as to what would happen in the law enforcement system, including the district attorney’s office, the courts and the jail,” Williamson said.
The mayor — an infrequent guest at council committee meetings — said the ordinance would help families feel safe in public places.
“I’m about the positive impacts on people in business and I feel strongly that this will assist people (in) feeling secure in our community, and at the same time assuring business that we are trying to help them,” Hall said afterward.
Dr. Gerald Cantu, a homeless advocate whose company, Stewards Inc., is a member of Kern County Homeless Collaborative, said the ordinance should be considered only part of a panhandling solution.
“If we don’t attack those root causes of homelessness, which are the same root causes that panhandlers have — which is why they’re out there in the first place — if we don’t address this on a holistic level then it’s not going to work,” Cantu said in an interview.
Bob Bell, co-owner of The Village at Towne Centre, 1201 24th St., agreed.
“I hope this opportunity defines for the community what is wrong and helps define who those people who are broken and needy are,” Bell said.