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Tuesday, Mar 04 2014 05:14 PM

Council to tackle panhandling, roadwork, drought

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    By Theo Douglas/ The Californian

    Andrae Gonzales, CEO of Stewards, Inc., surveys John Bilotta, director of operations at First Presbyterian Church, about panhandling in February.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

The city's draft panhandling ordinance outlawing "aggressive solicitation" will get a first reading by the Bakersfield City Council Wednesday, during a meeting that also includes workshops on major highway projects and a drought update.

It could be a lengthy meeting, City Manager Alan Tandy warned in his Feb. 14 weekly memo to the mayor and council.

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The Bakersfield City Council meets at 3:30 p.m. to take public statements on items on the closed-session agenda before going into closed session. Its regular meeting resumes at 5:15 p.m. at City Hall council chambers, 1501 Truxtun Ave. Meetings also may be viewed live on cable channel KGOV. Past meetings can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/qfatap5.

"There may be as many as seven reports," Tandy wrote. "Apologies in advance!"

The council will actually hear just two reports.

But it will take part in three workshops providing updates on Thomas Roads Improvement Program projects, and a vote -- possibly during a second closed session -- to begin early acquisition of properties in the path of the proposed Centennial Corridor freeway segment.

There's also the proposed panhandling ordinance, which would make "aggressive solicitation" illegal and ban all soliciting near banks, credit unions and ATMs, in parking lots and structures after dark, and on medians and public transit.

City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said the draft ordinance, which debuted Feb. 5 at a city council committee meeting, has been slightly revised to clearly define public transportation, and to make asking for money under false pretenses illegal.

"I think one can make a fair argument that when you're on a bus or a form of public transportation, your personal security feels more threatened in that environment because you're more confined," Gennaro said.

Representatives of the Downtown Business Association support the ordinance because they say panhandlers have become a problem for area merchants and their patrons.

DBA officials and homeless advocates both say they hope city and law enforcement officials can tell the difference between panhandlers and the homeless.

"We just want to make sure we can identify those who are truly homeless and those who are panhandling for reasons other than that they need to get food for the day," said Jim Wheeler, chairman of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, who will address the council Wednesday.

The ordinance is on the council's consent calendar, which means it could be approved with no discussion.

But Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera said he will likely remove the item from the consent agenda to talk about it -- because he thinks Bakersfield should do more to help its homeless.

"I would be interested in having the city council take a far more proactive role in addressing this over the next year," Rivera said.

During a workshop on the controversial proposed Centennial Corridor freeway segment, the council will weigh beginning early property acquisition.

At a press conference last week, city officials announced the early release of $165 million in federal earmarks secured for Bakersfield by former Congressman Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield. City officials said 83 property owners have expressed interest in early acquisition.

On Wednesday, the council will also vote to appropriate the $165 million to the Centennial Corridor Project Capital Improvement Budget, and to spend nearly $16 million of it to hire Long Beach-based Overland, Pacific & Cutler to represent the city in negotiations with property owners.

"We're the ninth largest city in the state. At some point, we have to make sure we're committed not only to seeing to any issues we have now with traffic flow but looking to the future," Rivera said. "I think the project we're completing under this program will make the lives easier of city residents driving around."

Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell said he's concerned about the city buying property years before it actually builds the Centennial freeway connection between Westside Parkway and Highway 58.

"It's a brand new program, and sometimes, brand new programs don't go so well. Look at Obamacare," Maxwell said. "What happens if we don't break ground for four years?"

As for those two reports, the council will hear from the city's Water Resource Department on what is being done to deal with California's record-breaking drought, including securing a $550,000 grant from the state Department of Water Resources to put water-saving sprinkler systems in 18 city parks.

It also will consider a report on a request from Maxwell to create an ad hoc council committee to review Thomas Roads Improvement Program projects, including Centennial Corridor and widening 24th Street.

City officials recommend not creating the committee, saying all the environmental documents under the city's control are finished, and the various agencies involved in TRIP work well together.

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