Montgomery mayor delays panhandler plan amid SPLC lawsuit threat

While the mayor won’t immediately sign or veto the ordinance, he says “the concept of it [panhandling] being unsafe is very valid”

SPLC calls Montgomery panhandling ordinance unconstitutional

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Montgomery Mayor Todd Stranges says he will neither sign nor veto a controversial panhandling ordinance by the Friday deadline. Instead, Strange will administratively delay its implementation for at least 60 days to hear concerns that have been raised over the plan.

The recently passed ordinance, which allows for police officers to arrest panhandlers, drew condemnation from the Southern Poverty Law Center Wednesday.

The SPLC said it would not rule out filing a lawsuit against the city if the mayor didn’t veto the measure before it goes into effect.

In a letter to Strange, the SPLC asserts that the city ordinance is “blatantly unconstitutional” on First Amendment grounds and could result in a lawsuit if the city does not change course.

“We urge the Mayor to veto the ordinance because it both unfairly punishes people who are living in poverty and violates the First Amendment,” the SPLC wrote. “If the Mayor does not veto the Ordinance (and the City Council does not rescind it), the SPLC will likely file a lawsuit against the City for violating the constitutional rights of its most vulnerable and needy citizens.”

Mayor Strange spoke with WSFA 12 News about the situation Wednesday morning following an economic announcement. He said he’d just gotten back from France and was reviewing the matter.

“I was surprised, frankly, that it was brought up while I was gone, and that with almost no conversation as to how you implement it, asking the police how you might enforce it, that there was a 9-0 vote,” the mayor stated.

The ordinance’s sponsor, District 7 Councilman Arch Lee, has previously stated that he met with police several times while drafting the legislation.

Mayor Strange reacts to passage of panhandler bill, SPLC lawsuit threat

The mayor said his priority was to find a way to stop the ordinance from going into effect Friday so that he could sit down to have a discussion about it with key players.

Those players include organizations that have concerns, like the SPLC, as well as police organizations and the courts because "at the end of the day, it’s up to the judges what the sentence is,” Strange said.

While Strange was surprised the ordinance was passed while he was away, he added “the concept of it [panhandling] being unsafe is very valid,” and that “we’ve seen people in the middle of the streets, you know, collecting. These aren’t necessarily homeless people. They may be enterprising individuals.”

“We don’t want to be disrespectful to the homeless, but we also don’t want to get people hurt and we don’t want that to be an enterprise that people can make money on,” the mayor explained.

Later Wednesday afternoon, Strange’s office issued further statement saying, in part that "[he] understands people’s rights, but is also concerned about the safety and harassing nature of panhandling while at the same time being very sensitive to homeless issues.

The Montgomery City Council agreed unanimously on July 2 to pass Ordinance No. 24-2019, called “An Ordinance Prohibiting Panhandling in the City of Montgomery.” Under the ordinance, a first offense will get a panhandler two days in jail unless it’s suspended by the judge. Further offenses guarantee jail time.

City officials say the new ordinance defines panhandling and includes city streets and public places that a state law already on the books does not include.

SPLC officials slammed the measure, saying council members claim that the city’s services for people who are homeless are adequate and those seeking financial assistance from others do not wish to access those services, but instead seek to feed addictions. SPLC said those statements “reinforce unfounded stereotypes about homelessness, mental illness and addiction.”

Montgomery city council passes panhandling ordinance

The SPLC is calling on the City of Montgomery to “invest in additional services to support people facing housing instability, mental illness, and addiction,” and urged Strange to “engage in a broad conversation with direct service providers and advocates about how to best support its most vulnerable and needy residents.”

Copyright 2019 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.