Begging issue riles up Aberdeen city council

The aggressive begging ordinance on Aberdeen’s books was repealed by Aberdeen City Council last night and discussion of what to do about panhandling in the city reached a boiling point.

When the matter came to the council a few weeks ago, it looked like a housekeeping issue designed to put Aberdeen’s ordinance in compliance with precedents established by a federal appeals court. But the issue has been simmering on Facebook and constituents have been calling councilmembers and last night the discussion was anything but routine.

After extensive testimony on the third reading of the bill, the city council voted unanimously to repeal it. The council will now move to consider new measures limiting begging, seeking to balance the right of people to solicit versus the right of people to be left alone.

Aggressive begging was deemed free speech by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and last year the insurer of most cities in Washington put them on notice about the decision, meaning cities such as Aberdeen could be held liable if sued by beggars over the issue, City Attorney Eric Nelson told council. So Nelson asked police not to enforce the law until it could be repealed. They had not made a single arrest under the law, anyway, because police had to witness an incident of aggressive begging in order to enforce it.

Nelson spoke heatedly earlier about the difficulty of gauging what aggressive begging means and he told Councilmember Alice Phelps that even though a panhandler pounded on her car, since no damage was done, it would be difficult to prosecute under that law anyway.

Nelson has said there are other means of dealing with the issue under statutes covering trespassing, disturbing the peace, and assault.

That was not good enough for several citizens who testified last night about aggressive begging in Aberdeen.

Removing the law without replacing it with another option targeting begging would be “complacent and lazy” said Courtney Cook, a citizen who lost a special election last night for a replacement to fill the seat of the late John Erak. She described begging as being “continually harassed.” She asked the council to “place what we have,” along with measures used in other cities, such as banning begging at intersections, and creating distances of up to 100 feet of businesses.

Nelson had pointed out to council members earlier that with three to four police on duty on a shift, performing that kind of diligence in the face of other priorities of public safety might be difficult.

“The culture (of begging) will change if it is illegal” to solicit in certain areas, Cook said.

Elaine Redner, who is running against Council President Kathi Hoder in Ward 4, was also heated. She owns Anytime Fitness in West Aberdeen and said she is constantly bombarded by panhandlers who want to clean up, stop in and take a shower. While not in favor of violating the First Amendment, she wants action taken because they “defile our businesses.”

Nelson replied later that businesses who are accosted by panhandlers can ask police to enforce existing trespassing laws. He also said he liked some of the ideas brought up that would limit begging.

Several council members echoed the concern of citizens, noting that perhaps there is not a solution in law but in changing the behavior of those who beg and those who give to them. They, like Nelson, also acknowledged the difficulty of enforcement.

Chief Bob Torgerson spoke up at the end of the meeting, reminding people that his downtown Parking and Business District Improvement Commission encourages people to donate directly to charitable institutions who directly help those in need.

Luke Tackett reminded council members that Union Gospel Mission of Grays Harbor gives out “care kits” and vouchers for clothing banks, showers, furniture and a stay at the mission itself. Care kits are gallon sized plastic bags filled with items such as socks, granola bars, gift certificates for fast food, hand wipes, toothbrush and toothpaste, bandages and other items needed by the homeless.

No specific date was set for the next action on the begging issue.