Curry County commissioners have tabled indefinitely the idea of making panhandling illegal in the county, citing freedom of speech issues and staffing problems at the Sheriff’s Office.
Panhandlers are most active in Harbor, county commissioners agree, but there is little that can be done to deter their presence, which business owners complain about to the commission board on a fairly regular basis.
According to county attorney Jerry Herbage, who contacted numerous municipalities and counties to see how they handle the problem, Brookings does not have an ordinance on the books so police work with property owners to deal with trespassing problems instead. Gold Beach and Port Orford, too, don’t have such ordinances, either.
Medford, Roseburg, Grants Pass, Beaverton and West Linn have “anti-soliciting” ordinances and he could not find a county that addresses it.
The Grants Pass city manager said they have an ordinance that addresses the “transfer of items of value on highways, roads or streets, but it’s “a public safety kind of thing,” Herbage said. And all that’s done is force panhandlers from the streets to the front doors of businesses.
“Grants Pass took care of it on the streets, but the panhandlers went to Wal-Mart,” Herbage said. “It’s difficult to regulate it in a parking lot.
“Panhandling itself is protected speech; it’s no different than someone wanting to talk about Ducks football, or Beavers football,” he added. “The government can’t stop people from talking about football.”
He noted there are laws about people communicating inappropriately, such as yelling “Fire!” in an occupied theater when no fire exists.
Some jurisdictions address the issue in the domain of public safety as it affects traffic.
Other questions come to mind, as well, including the necessity of such an ordinance, if it would take care of the problem, if the county has the money and staff to enforce it, and if the county is willing to defend challenges by homeless advocates.
“An ordinance in itself doesn’t solve the problem,” said commissioner George Rhodes. “Do we want to spend money on this scenario or issues of more importance? It’s a matter of priorities. We have to find several million dollars just to support the county. At this point, I wouldn’t encourage counsel (Herbage) to pursue it.”