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Wednesday, Mar 05 2014 10:19 PM

Divided council delays panhandling ordinance

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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

After hearing from business association and homeless advocates, the Bakersfield City Council voted 4-3 Wednesday to delay first reading of a draft ordinance outlawing aggressive panhandling until March 19, when it will get a full staff report on the proposed law.

The draft ordinance debuted Feb. 5 before a city committee comprised of three council representatives, which sent it to the full council for consideration.

It would make "aggressive solicitation" a misdemeanor or an infraction, depending upon the situation, and would ban all solicitation within 20 feet of banks, ATMs, check-cashing businesses, and on road medians and public transportation.

On Wednesday, several members of the seven-member council expressed concerns that giving the ordinance a first read -- putting it on track to potentially becoming law by the end of the month -- could harm the homeless.

Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera, who represents the southeast, pulled the item off the council's consent calendar where it could have been enacted with no discussion and questioned whether the police department had enough officers on the street to target panhandlers.

"What I've thought about very much is how this will affect your efforts to police the city. Will you be able to enforce this?" Rivera asked Police Chief Greg Williamson, saying the issue "pulled at his heart."

"If they dispatch us, we'll prioritize it accordingly. We would get there when we got there," Williamson said. "That's the cycle we're in not only on panhandling but on most misdemeanors."

Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell queried Kim Albers, executive director of homeless outreach group Flood Bakersfield Ministries about how many homeless people actually panhandle.

Albers said a survey dating to 2012 found of 349 homeless polled, 76 received something from panhandling.

She and Jim Wheeler, chairman of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, emphasized progress they've made in addressing homelessness, asking for a six-month delay in enacting the ordinance.

"These are complicated folks to help. It takes time," Albers said. "We understand that enforcement probably has to be part of the comprehensive approach but we would ask you for the chance to just do some street outreach first and get those who are truly in need off the street first before they're caught up in any enforcement strategy."

Downtown Business Association Chairman Kevin Bartl said the real issue is keeping streets and businesses safe for Bakersfield citizens.

"If we cannot come up with an ordinance that makes it illegal to approach a woman pumping gas in the darkness at night, or come up behind someone with a 2-year-old in their arms who's just taken $40 out of the ATM, then I think our hope of tackling this important issue will be dealt a serious blow," Bartl said.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan agreed, saying the ordinance would be a needed tool for merchants.

Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson said the council should have heard more about the ordinance from City Attorney Ginny Gennaro.

"I really think this item didn't get a fair shake tonight," Johnson said.

Gennaro pointed out that the ordinance was well-received by the committee that heard it first.

"Not having heard anything, that there was any objection, it just seemed logical that you would put it on consent calendar," she said in an interview.

A divided council first voted 4-3 against a motion from Vice Mayor Ken Weir to table the ordinance indefinitely, then voted 4-3 in favor of a motion from Johnson to bring the ordinance back in two weeks.

Both times, the three-person bloc consisted of Weir, Rivera and Ward 5 Councilman Harold Hanson.

In other business, the council took a historic step, voting 7-0 to appropriate $165 million in federal earmarks released early to buy property in the path of the proposed Centennial Corridor freeway segment before its Environmental Impact Report is approved.

The council also learned that the city will have to borrow $30 million less than expected to fund Centennial Corridor and other major highway projects because it has earned more in development fees and saved more on Highway 178 improvements. The city still expects to borrow $240 million, most likely in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

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