Council: Protect Westside if law passes

       Panhandlers plague the downtown. A no-solicitation ordinance cures the problem. Downtown panhandlers move to the Westside.
       A consensus of Colorado Springs City Council foresaw that potential future at the meeting Sept. 24 and didn't like the view. Nor were councilmembers convinced by Police Chief Pete Carey's pledge that in such an eventuality his department would “keep an eye on West Colorado Avenue.”
       Instead, they insisted on a detailed enforcement plan. Carey was asked to have it ready for the next discussion on the subject at the council meeting Tuesday, Oct. 9.
       “I have a real concern for enforcement on the Westside,” said City Councilmember Jan Martin, adding that “if I'm convinced we're making that commitment to the Westside, I'm more likely to support the ordinance for the downtown.”
       With a creek and parks and reasonable proximity to the downtown's free meals and other services, the Westside is already a popular transient hangout and is seen as a likely fallback for downtown departers should the ordinance take effect (although there is some council concern that other areas might be hit as well).
       The proposal before council, pushed by the Mayor's Office, has been - and was again Sept. 24 - to create a zone in the downtown that would allow no solicitation of any kind. City Attorney Chris Melcher reiterated previous comments that creating more than one zone at the outset (such as both the downtown and Westside) might be struck down in court as impinging too greatly on freedom of speech.
       But councilmembers were not convinced. The attorney was directed to come back Oct. 9 with additional options for no-solicitation zones, including the Dallas model (noted by Councilmember Bernie Herpin) that does not allow panhandling near intersections.
       Melcher also faced probes about his multiple-zone stance. Councilmem-ber Lisa Czelatdko, whose District 3 includes the Westside, asked why the Springs would have to start with one zone when several cities have multiple zones now. “We've been hearing for months and months from Westsiders. Are we now telling them they don't get a no-panhandling zone?”
       Additionally, Melcher took heat for the blanket nature of his downtown-zone language, which as currently written would stop not only beggars with cardboard signs but also socially acceptable types such as street musicians, food vendors or Salvation Army bell-ringers. In that regard, Council also asked the city attorney to come back Oct. 9 with more flexible options.
       The public will have a chance to offer comments Oct. 9. Council does not plan to make a decision then, but could do so at the next formal meeting Oct. 23 (when citizens could again offer ideas).
       Handling the process this way was worked out after City Councilmember Brandy Williams noted that if council planned to act Oct. 9 “the public wouldn't know what we're voting on.”
       Council did hear one public comment on the issue during the Citizen Discussion portion of its Sept. 25 meeting. Mike Crepeau, leader of the Avenue Merchants Association (representing the area west of 31st Street), urged council to consider “economic vitality” in its ordinance ruminations, including the hefty amount of sales taxes that come from Westside businesses and the negative effect that would result from a “displacement” of panhandlers to the Westside.
       The issue of Westside crime vs. downtown crime came up during the Sept. 24 council discussion. Chief Carey said he has temporarily assigned two additional officers to the Westside corridor at certain times of the day, but has doubts about continuing that plan over the long term because the downtown has a bigger crime problem. If he had additional funds, “I'd spend it downtown,” he said.
       As comparison examples, Carey said the downtown has twice as many property crimes, three times more personal crimes, six times more weapons offenses and four times more disorderly conducts.
       But Westsiders are displeased with the crime they have. “You don't want to ignore that,” he said. “On the Westside, people are vocal about it, not so much downtown.”
       Another argument Melcher has made for a downtown-only zone is that the downtown is uniquely plagued by “passive” panhandlers, who hurt commerce and upset people just by their presence. On the other hand, Melcher has asserted that the Westside, mainly west of 31st, has more cases of “aggressive panhandling,” as well as felony-type crimes such as prostitution, assaults and drug-dealing.
       As a result, if the same no-solicitation ordinance were applied to the Westside as to the downtown, “a court would say that we've taken one tool and are using it indiscriminately,” Melcher told council.

Westside Pioneer article