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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Jim Wheeler, steering committee chairman of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, speaks during a Bakersfield City Council meeting Wednesday about panhandling in the downtown area.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Bakersfield City Attorney Ginny Gennaro speaks about panhandling in Bakersfield during a Bakersfield City Council meeting Wednesday.

Balancing calls from business owners for help with aggressive panhandlers with pleas for caution from homeless advocates, the Bakersfield City Council gave first reading Wednesday to a draft ordinance criminalizing aggressive solicitation.

The ordinance would make "aggressive solicitation" a misdemeanor or an infraction, and ban all soliciting near banks, credit unions and ATMs, in parking lots and structures after dark, and on medians and public transit.

The council's unanimous vote giving it a first reading means the ordinance will get a second reading and likely be approved at the April 16 council meeting. If so, the ordinance could become law in late April or early May.

"In terms of the impact on enforcement, this is going to remain a low priority call. The law requires that a crime occur in the presence of a police officer. The likelihood of prosecution is slim," City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said during a staff presentation on the proposed ordinance. "It's a good ordinance. I think it's something you should consider. And if we're challenged, I think we're on very good footing and we'll prevail."

Her remarks followed public comments from nine residents on the ordinance, including at least two who asked the council to delay enforcing it.

"None of us would like to have our wives or daughters accosted at the ATM," said Jim Wheeler, chairman of the steering committee for the Kern County Homeless Collaborative. "We're asking that you delay implementation. It gives us time to go in and do our work."

The collaborative has begun outreach efforts to get the homeless in central Bakersfield off the street.

It believes removal of encampments along the Kern River has prompted the homeless to move into central Bakersfield and worries enforcing the ordinance will scatter them before they can be helped.

Downtown Business Association Chairman Kevin Bartl agreed outreach is needed for the truly needy, but said a firm hand is a must when dealing with panhandlers who are threatening the economic survival of area businesses.

In an interview, Bartl pointed to a survey of downtown businesses unveiled Tuesday to the homeless collaborative's steering committee. It found 45 percent of downtown businesses surveyed said panhandlers kept their customers away.

"In researching (other) towns and their ordinances, one phrase was heard repeatedly: 'Hopefully they will go elsewhere.' Guess what? They are going elsewhere. They're coming to Bakersfield. Beautiful, benevolent Bakersfield," Bartl said.

Vice Mayor Ken Weir wondered if enforcement could simply be delayed, but Police Chief Greg Williamson said that wasn't the best course.

"The greatest tool a law enforcement officer has is discretion," Williamson said. "Oftentimes officers are able in the field to mitigate instances if they feel the penal system isn't the best way to go for an individual."

Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera said he now supports the ordinance but wonders how effective it will be.

"At some point we have to take responsibility for what's happened," Rivera said referring to the homeless presence in central Bakersfield.

Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson moved the ordinance return for a second reading at a meeting in May -- which would have delayed it somewhat -- but yielded to a friendly amendment from Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, who represents downtown Bakersfield.

"I think that the collaborative does a great job. And I don't think that actually doing this ordinance is going to hurt them. It might help them," Maxwell said before the council's unanimous vote. "I don't believe that delaying it at all is in the best interests of anybody."

In other business, the council heard from homeowner Bill Hickey Jr. that he is ready to give the city the land it needs to build a cul-de-sac on Cedar Street.

The modified cul-de-sac the city would build -- estimated at$21,026 -- would be moved eight feet south of its original proposed location and would include two public parking spaces at its top.

This, plus the offer of a city-built driveway apron mollified Hickey, the last homeowner to agree because under original plans he would have lost all street parking.

The modified cul-de-sac will cost $3,000 more than planned, but Hickey and his neighbors said they'd gladly bear the cost.

The council voted to take them up on that, and authorized the cul-de-sac.

Assistant Public Works Director Nick Fidler said the eagerly-awaited white concrete "k-rail" blocking Cedar Street probably won't be laid out before next week at the earliest.

The council also voted to wait until the first week in April to continue talks with one hold-out homeowner on Beech Street -- the last of the so-called "tree streets" which can get a cul-de-sac if its residents approve.