Council backs off intersection ordinance after torrent of public concern about its effect on those who rely on panhandling

By Randi B. Hagi, contributor

City council members voted unanimously to table a proposed ordinance that would prohibit pedestrians from lingering in the medians at seven major intersections, after a heated public discussion that stretched Tuesday’s meeting beyond four-and-a-half hours.

The council held its public hearing on the proposed ordinance, which had drawn demonstrators to the previous meeting when the issue first came up.

Twenty-six area residents spoke against the proposed ordinance, including three who are currently homeless. The residents who spoke said the ordinance directly affected and criminalized panhandling at those intersections.

Some invoked Harrisonburg’s reputation as the “Friendly City” and asked that the council vote against the proposed ordinance as a demonstration of compassion to those panhandling on the median.

Others directly accused the city of “punishing homeless people for existing in public.”

In opening the public hearing, City Attorney Chris Brown gave some background to the ordinance, including accident statistics. Last year, for instance, between 20 and 48 accidents occurred at each of the seven intersections. While Brown said officials don’t believe pedestrians caused those accidents, “the goal is to keep people from being run over … the medians are not designed for people to stand there.”

“The ordinance doesn’t care why the person is in the median,” said Brown. “You can walk to the sidewalk … at those intersections and do whatever you need to do.”

The intersections outlined in the ordinance are:

  • South Main Street and Martin Luther King Way;
  • East Market Street and Carlton Street;
  • East Market Street and Linda Lane/Burgess Road;
  • South High Street and Martin Luther King Way;
  • South Main Street and Stone Spring Road;
  • South Main Street and Pleasant Valley Road;
  • and West Market Street and High Street.

Under the proposal, a violation of the ordinance would result in up to a $100 fine for a first or second offense and up to $200 fine for further offenses. The courts could choose to require community service instead of a fine.

“What makes you guys think we could afford a fine, a ticket?” said Katina Dellapenna, another person who spoke who is currently homeless. “We’re not harming the community. We want something to eat at night … None of us asked for this, it’s a means of survival.”

Residents react

“This has nothing to do with public safety,” Yolo Adow said of the ordinance.

“It’s to drive homeless people off the street … so Harrisonburg can get gentrified,” said local resident Nevin Zehr, who called the proposed ordinance “disgusting.”

Robert Perry, who is homeless, said panhandling was an expression of freedom of speech.

“The median is dangerous,” he said, adding that the sidewalk can be as well. “What’s the difference?”

Eric Olson-Getty, the first resident to speak, read a letter signed by representatives of Our Community Place, Open Doors, Healthcare for the Homeless Suitcase Clinic, Bridge of Hope and First Step asking council to reject the ordinance.

Jim Atwood, a retired pastor, referenced the invocation council member Richard Baugh gave to open the meeting in which he called for being “gentle” and “kind” and to “do justice.”

“I ask you to ‘be gentle, to be kind, to do justice,’ love mercy, and vote against this resolution,” Atwood said.

Council members respond

Several council members took issue with the tone taken by some of those who made public comments.

Vice-mayor Sal Romero said the public might assume — erroneously, he said — that those in elected positions have not experienced hardship. Romero said that he was “not in support of this ordinance … the data really doesn’t support it.”

Mayor Deanna Reed echoed one of Romero’s sentiments, saying that “not all of us have silver spoons.”

“I thought that a lot of you understood the passion and the concern that I have for people in need,” Reed said. While she said that she would not support this ordinance, when applause died down, Reed added, “You can be passionate about an issue, but you don’t have to attack us.”

Council member Chris Jones referenced parliamentary procedure when an attendee interrupted him during the council members’ discussion.

“It has nothing to do with criminalizing someone,” Jones said.

And he cited council’s time and energy discussing homelessness and taxpayer dollars allocated to organizations such as the Community Services Board and other social services as proof of council’s commitment to helping those who are struggling.

“No one is losing their First Amendment right … we’re asking you to do it on a sidewalk,” he said.  

Council member George Hirschmann said that the high level of participation “has given us a lot of different angles to the situation,” including problems that “maybe weren’t considered” when they first looked at the ordinance.

“In all the votes I’ve taken in 11 years, I haven’t had one that kept me up at night,” said council member Richard Baugh. He expressed fear that, should the council reject the proposed ordinance and a pedestrian be struck and killed in one of those medians, that this would be the vote that would keep him up at night.

Also at Tuesday night’s meeting:

  • At the first public hearing of the Fiscal Year 2019 – 2020 budget, local residents advocated for the inclusion of funding for the Valley Program for Aging Services, a 4H extension agent to start a Harrisonburg 4H chapter, Blue Ridge Casa for Children, and the Harrisonburg Rockingham Child Daycare Center. Interim Superintendent Patrick Lintner thanked the council for their ongoing support and acceptance of the school budget.

    The $274 million proposed budget includes money for six new positions, including the city’s portion of a community justice planner’s salary, which would be shared with the county. (You can read more about key details of the budget in Tuesday’s article in The Citizen.) The second public hearing of the budget is scheduled for the council’s May 14 meeting.
  • The council voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance granting a franchise agreement with Shentel, based in Edinburg, Va., to provide cable television service in the city. Shentel already offers cellular service and fiber optic internet in Harrisonburg. The company intends to start infrastructure construction in June.
  • The council voted unanimously to allow residents who can already own chickens under city code to have up to six chickens, an increase from four, saying that many hatcheries only sell chicks by the half dozen.
  • Chris Pipkin was appointed unanimously to the Economic Development Authority.

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