Last night’s Cranston City Council meeting was a very long attempt to design a bill that would both stop panhandlers from asking motorists for money and at the same time pass constitutional muster, since the courts have long held that the act of panhandling, which is simply asking for money, is free speech protected by the first amendment. Cranston’s first attempt at banning panhandling was challenged by the Rhode Island ACLU in court and ruled unconstitutional. That ordinance has not been enforced since April.
The new anti-panhandling ordinance was worked on behind the scenes and over the weekend by the Republican councilors, mostly by council vice president Michael Favicchio. Councilor John Lanni Jr, a Democrat, told me afterwards that none of the Democrats on the council had seen the amended ordinance before it was presented at the meeting last night. Mayor Alan Fung, who was present at the meeting, and the city solicitor, Christopher Rawson, worked with Favicchio on two amendments to the legislation that they hoped would bolster its constitutionality.
Council President Michael Farina began the public comment by limiting testimony to Cranston residents and two minutes.
During the public comment section of the meeting 19 Cranston residents came out in opposition to the bill. No one spoke in the bill’s favor. Residents asked that instead of criminalizing poverty the city council work to alleviate poverty and homelessness.
None of the speakers seemed to think that the issue was about safety. “The ordinance is unquestionably targeting poor people,” said Sara, who was holding an unwieldy toddler for half her testimony.
Josh Catone called into doubt the idea that panhandling is a safety issue noting that there’s “No evidence that panhandlers cause accidents.”
Another resident addressed the mayor directly, saying, “Mayor Fung, I voted for you and I am just flabbergasted that you’re bringing this up again.”
The last man to speak out against the ordinance put it best, saying, “You can’t pass a law to make it illegal for one person to ask another person for help. We don’t do that in Cranston.”
After public comment Mayor Fung responded with a long presentation in defense of the legislation, which he demanded be seen not as an effort to legislate away the free speech rights of the homeless but as a safety issue.
Fung told a story about being at a traffic light and how a man with a bucket startled him when he banged the bucket on his car window and asked for a donation. Fung suggested that the man might have startled him so badly that he would have taken his foot off the brake of his car and driven into traffic, which made some in the audience laugh, since the idea seems absurd: Fung’s hypothetical seems very unlikely to experienced drivers.
Fung reacted angrily to the smiles and laughter, and brought up an incident from his past, when a younger Fung had struck and killed a man changing his car tire at night. “I see some of you laughing,” said Fung, “I’ve been in a situation where I’ve taken a life, you can laugh all you want sir, but that’s something I live with every single day.”
I should note here that homeless advocates in the room had signs with them. One side of the sign was bright green and said “TRUE” the other side of the sign was red and said “FALSE.” As Fung and others at the council meeting made various claims of fact, advocates held up the signs, as instant fact-checks.
Brilliant. This idea will take off.
Despite Fung’s 13 minute speech defending the anti-panhandling ordinance as necessary for public safety, even going so far as to bring up a terrible incident from his own biography to prove his sincerity, when it came time for Colonel Michael Winquist of the Cranston Police Department to speak, all he could do is talk about how the department needed an ordinance to allow his officers to deal with the homeless and panhandlers.
“Since we stopped enforcing [the previous, unconstitutional panhandling ordinance] last April,” said Winquist, “complaints have been coming in left and right to the police department, and a lot of people have expressed their opposition to panhandling in our streets.
Once the testimonies and speeches were over, the City Council got down to the business of actually amending the ordinance, which took a full 45 minutes of discussion. There were two amendments that were approved, which means the amended bill can be voted on at the next City Council meeting, to be scheduled.
The purpose of the amendments is to bolster the constitutionality of the legislation. Most of the Republicans on the council seemed to think they were creating a robust bill that would make it through the courts. The Democrats on the council disagreed, and were certain of a court challenge from the Rhode Island ACLU and an expensive loss in court. Councilor Steven Stycos said the amendments “only serve to hide the fact that ordinance targets panhandlers.”
This led council vice president Favicchio to note that any legislation can be challenged in court, saying, “I understand you don’t want us to waste money, but sometimes you have to do it.”
Amending the ordinance led to some comedy, as at one point Council President Farina asked Favicchio to “explain the first amendment.” There was an ironic laugh from the crowd, since the entire exercise was about finding a way to ban panhandling despite the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, even though Farina was only talking about the first amendment to the proposed anti-panhandling ordinance. He later repeated the unintentional joke, saying, “Let’s keep the comments germane to the first amendment.”
The first amendment issue was doubly ironic when you realize that Cranston has been apparently telling residents at their meetings that “no electronic recording devices” are allowed at open meetings of the city council. This is directly contrary to state law (and the First Amendment), as I pointed out before the start of last night’s meeting:
Farina also said that during public comment he is not allowed to answer questions during the public comment part of the meeting or make comments, which is also not true. Read here: “Any or all of the members of a public body (school committees included) may respond to comments initiated by a member of the public during the open forum portion of a meeting even if the matter was not previously posted on the agenda, for informational purposes only. R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-46-6(d).”