The town is looking to rein in “aggressive panhandlers.”
The Rutland Town Select Board has passed an ordinance restricting the activities of panhandlers, keeping them a certain distance from facilities like public toilets and ATMs and otherwise requiring them to moderate their solicitations. The board unanimously approved the ordinance at a meeting earlier this month, and town administrator Joe Zingale said it will take effect Feb. 2 if nobody files a petition for a public vote.
“We’ve had a few, in the past year, a couple citizen complaints,” Zingale said. “I’ve gotten a few myself, at least three.”
Zingale said individual board members also got calls about panhandling at the intersection by Green Mountain Plaza.
“People who would be stopped at the red light, they would walk up to them and stand there, talk to them,” he said.
Another complaint noted panhandlers seemingly operating in shifts at the location. Zingale said there was also a safety issue.
“For people to be standing on that island and stepping out into traffic — that’s not a good location,” he said.
Under the direction of the board, Zingale said he contacted the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which provided him with a copy of an ordinance adopted in Burlington. That became the template for the town’s ordinance.
“This will give us the authority to move the people along and prohibit what’s going on,” Zingale said.
The ordinance prohibits soliciting anyone waiting in line, in a parking lot or within 15 feet of a building entrance, public toilet, ATM, bus stop, handicapped parking space, pay phone, public information booth, financial institution or check cashing business.
Soliciting while intoxicated is prohibited, as is soliciting someone who has already declined a solicitation or in poorly lit areas. The ordinance also forbids panhandlers from blocking traffic, “recklessly touching” people and their property, using violent, obscene or threatening gestures or being “unnecessarily loud.”
The ordinance also states “No person shall solicit by stating that funds are needed to meet a specific need, when the solicitor has the funds to meet that need, does not intend to use funds to meet that need or does not have that need.”
Violations are punishable by fines ranging from $50 to $500.
Dan Barrett, a staff attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while he was not familiar with or aware of any complaints regarding the Burlington ordinance — or about the issue at all in Vermont — the Rutland Town one raised a number of red flags.
“Copying and pasting from one municipal ordinance does not mean that it’s lawful,” he said. “It could just mean nobody has challenged it.”
Barrett said a number of the provisions are already covered by state statutes on assault and disorderly behavior.
While the ordinance does not outright prohibit soliciting money, Barrett said he did not believe the prohibitions against soliciting too close to a bank or a public toilet would withstand challenge.
“The big problem with the ordinance is soliciting money is protected by the First Amendment, as is standing with a campaign sign,” he said. “I think the town could save itself a lot of trouble by not enacting it.”
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