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Missoula city council will reconsider new panhandling ordinance

By Faith Smith, KECI Reporter, fcronin@keci.com
Published On: Jan 12 2014 08:50:25 PM MST
MISSOULA, Mont. -

Monday night the Missoula City Council will reconsider their amendments to a solicitation ordinance adopted in December.

The review comes after the American Civil Liberties Union said the changes were unconstitutional.

The current ordinance bans sitting, sleeping, lying, soliciting or panhandling on the sidewalk within 12 feet of a building entrance in the city.

The proposed ordinance expands that distance to 20 feet and bans the above mentioned activities in the downtown business improvement district, or BID, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

This isn’t the first time city governments have debated this type of legislature.  

A federal court then ruled against a Boise Idaho panhandling ordinance; banning most of its law from going into effect.

Now Missoula city council members are questioning the legality of their own proposed panhandling ordinance.

NBC Montana spoke with city council member Adam Hertz to learn more.  

“This is an ordinance that truly grew out of downtown,” says Hertz.  “We do want to make sure that we address the concerns that originated this ordinance but we also want to make sure that it’s constitutional.”

Hertz tells us amendments to Missoula's current panhandling ordinance were passed back in December, but that was before the ACLU said the changes were unconstitutional.

“The amendments were passed back in December and they take 30 days to go into effect so they're not in effect yet,” explains Hertz.  “Now were deciding whether we actually want those to go into effect.”

Hertz says he thinks it may be better to craft a new panhandling ordinance that doesn't put the city at risk of a lawsuit.

“When this preliminary injunction came out of federal court it just gave us a pause and made us think the concerns we had were probably more valid than we thought they were in the first place and we want to make sure and do things constitutionally,” he says.   

NBC Montana talked to a number of different businesses downtown and learned vagrancy issues do cause headaches for a few, like Jimmy Johns and El Cazador.  However some businesses, like Break Espresso, say it's not a big problem.

But for Hertz, it's all a matter of balancing people's safety and their constitutional rights.  

“The city council, the mayor, the Missoula downtown business owners and the community just want to get something that works so people feel safe but also were protecting people's constitutional rights,” he says.  

Hertz says above all he doesn't want the council to pass any laws that may put taxpayers money at risk for a lawsuit.

Monday the council will vote on whether to reconsider their amendments.  If the vote passes the amendments will be repealed and the council will start over; otherwise the council will move forward with the proposed ordinance.

The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at 140 West Pine Street in downtown Missoula.