The Merced City Council took a step toward squashing panhandling by focusing on some median islands Monday.
“This problem is very visual,” Mayor Stan Thurston said. “It makes our city look bad.”
In a unanimous vote, council made it a misdemeanor to use the medians for anything other than a place to wait while crossing the street.
The ordinance applies to the medians of Auto Center Drive, Olive and Yosemite avenues, as well as G, M, R and V streets. The city added Martin Luther King Jr. Way north of Highway 99 to that list.
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City Attorney Greg Diaz said being specific about which streets fall under the ordinance would likely help it withstand legal challenge because putting all Merced streets under the ordinance would too strictly restrain free speech.
“This would leave open the sidewalks, the street corners all of the traditional sort of forums (such as) city parks,” Diaz said.
City staff used similar ordinances in Fresno and Hanford as an outline for the so-called “Median Solicitation Ordinance.” Those ordinances include a permit clause.
Merced City Council decided to forgo permits, citing recent court cases that saw permit laws struck down because a permit could amount to “prior restraint” of free speech.
Councilman Tony Dossetti said the ordinance is a start to thinning out panhandling, which “has gotten out of control.”
“There’s lots of ways to deal with it,” he said. “This is only one way.”
The ordinance makes exceptions for workers engaged in construction, maintenance, surveying, law enforcement or emergency response. There is no exception for the solicitation of money or other fundraising.
The ordinance restricts signs held by solicitors, and prohibits anyone on the median to step into the street to exchange anything with drivers or passengers.
As the city grows, other medians could be added to the list of restricted sites under the ordinance, according to city staff.
Bruce Metcalf, executive director of the Merced Rescue Mission, said he supported the ordinance.
During Monday’s meeting, he said the ordinance could help with his effort to eliminate panhandling in town.
“Together, we can beat this problem,” he said.
The Merced Rescue Mission, with help from area businesses, began an effort in spring to suppress panhandling in town by getting potential donors to give to nonprofits rather than individuals who are soliciting.
The program consists of an education effort and the distribution of cards marked with places to get free food and shelter.
During the same meeting, City Council unanimously voted to no longer pursue the “No-Donation Ordinance,” which would make it illegal for drivers or passengers to donate to panhandlers on a median.
In his report to the council, City Attorney Greg Diaz wrote that donating cash is protected under the first amendment as a form of speech.
He went on to write that he felt the ordinance would likely not withstand a legal challenge.
“In this case, a ban on all donations being made from the driver and/or occupants of a motor vehicle would likely be viewed as burdening more speech than necessary to achieve the city’s goal of traffic safety,” Diaz wrote.