Lamar City Council members acknowledged that while there are some protections under the First Amendment for free speech or assembly which covers panhandling, Lamar residents are also offered some legal protections from panhandlers under local ordinances. Some ideas for regulating or curtailing their activities were discussed during a December 7th work session, but no action was taken at the time. Other matters before the council included how to best navigate the intricacies involved with applying for and distributing what might be as much as a $5M grant from GOCO to develop the Inspire project. Lamar is one of several communities which have qualified for the health oriented grant which could range between $1M and $5M expected to be awarded next year. The council also reviewed a three tiered rate hike for monthly residential and commercial water bills to pay for past and planned infrastructure improvements in the city.
City Administrator, John Sutherland, said he he has spoken with most council members and the police chief over the past year and a half on panhandling, but noticed a recent increase in those activities. “There is a legitimate concern about the impression it makes for our community,” adding, “We are not the worst that I have seen in other areas of the state,” referencing panhandler activities in metro areas of Colorado. Most panhandlers in Lamar will hold up cardboard signs asking for money and can be found at the entrances or exits to stores with high volume traffic, sitting on the curb at the Main and Olive Street intersection and at some fast-food locations along North and South Main Streets. Lamar Police Chief, Kyle Miller, in response to an inquiry from The Prowers Journal last month, replied that as long as the individual is passive and not overtly aggressive or threatening in their request for money, they have broken no laws and they are permitted to ask a person for money.
Information provided to the council by City Attorney, Garth Nieschburg, regarding the status of the law on panhandling states in part, “A person may occupy public places, may use speech and signs to solicit money or other things of value, may make repeated requests, and may use the sidewalk parking areas or patio area of a retail business. A person panhandling may not engage in intimidating conduct, use threats, coercion or obscene words or actions or use fighting words or actions. A person panhandling may not grab or touch a person being solicited. A person panhandling may not obstruct any sidewalk, door entryway or other passageway used by pedestrians.”
Nieschburg suggested to the council, that he revise the 10-4-60 (c) ordinance which states that a Class 1 petty offense has been committed if a person is loitering for the purpose of begging, as the higher courts have ruled that out. He added that the city has a soliciting ordinance but it is applicable for residentially zoned areas of the community. Sutherland said the work session was an opportunity for all the council to weigh in on the issue and develop some ideas. Neischburg said he would draft a suggested revision of the ordinance to bring it up to date with some wording and let Sutherland and the council review it if they believed future action was warranted. Another suggestion was to require panhandlers to register at no cost to get a license with the city as solicitors for purposes of identification.
By Russ Baldwin
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