Bakersfield joined cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles in banning aggressive panhandling Wednesday with a unanimous City Council vote.
In a 5-0 decision with Vice Mayor Ken Weir and Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith absent, the Bakersfield City Council approved an ordinance making "aggressive solicitation" a misdemeanor or an infraction.
Bakersfield's ordinance also bans all soliciting near banks, credit unions and ATMs, in parking lots and structures after dark, and on medians and public transit. It will become law in 30 days.
City staff recommended the council approve the ordinance, saying it would give Bakersfield a legally defensible local statute to help downtown business owners who have said panhandlers are driving away their customers -- instead of using state penal code to cite violators.
Both the city attorney and police chief have said enforcing the ordinance will remain a low priority compared to more serious crimes, and those cited must first be seen aggressively panhandling by a Bakersfield police officer.
"We'll enforce the ordinance as we're available to do that, and obviously for those types of crimes, misdemeanors, the officer generally has to see the crime committed," Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson said in an interview. "It will be a lower priority call than crimes where people's safety is in danger."
Downtown Business Association Chairman Kevin Bartl said he was pleased the ordinance passed.
"Fantastic," Bartl said. "We've already started our discussion on collateral, signage for members who want to post the ordinance, as well as trying to get our ducks in a row with the homeless collaborative to reach as many people as they can."
Homeless advocates, who are trying to reach out to increased numbers of homeless people in central Bakersfield, had asked for a six-month delay in enacting the ordinance.
Kim Albers, executive director of homeless outreach group Flood Bakersfield Ministries, said Tuesday the ordinance's then-pending approval disappointed her.
"I do feel for me that it's a missed opportunity. To reach some people who really need to be reached," said Albers, one of several advocates who had asked the council to delay enforcement. "I feel once we're out there with an enforcement strategy, it makes any kind of human services effort that much more difficult."
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, whose district includes downtown, said social services groups had their chance.
"They've had their time. The homeless have been here for how long? You knew this was going to come someday," Maxwell said. "This ordinance might force all of them to come together and say 'Let's really tackle this problem.' That's what I'm hoping."
In other business, the council approved 5-0 a 14-month extension of the contract hiring Bakersfield Homeless Center clients to collect trash on local highways.
The $385,640 contract would continue the employing of 18 formerly homeless BHC residents at minimum wage through June 30, 2015 -- at no cost to the city.
Bakersfield has $256,600 left over from the first year's contract because it didn't hire all 18 people at once. The other $129,040 will be paid by Caltrans, Kern Council of Governments and other sponsors.
"We have 49 individuals from the Homeless Center now that have homes, roofs over their heads," Mayor Harvey Hall said in an interview. "So that's what's significant about the continuation of that contract, so that we can keep taking people out of the homeless center and putting them in homes and giving them a job."
Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan agreed in remarks during council comments.
"That has just been a wonderful thing, complete win-win situation. Good for the residents of the Bakersfield Homeless Center, and the trash situation on our freeways has really improved," Sullivan said, calling for a presentation at a future council meeting on the benefits of the city's contract with the homeless center. "It's an interesting issue and I think it would be beneficial to our community."