Panhandling ban nears OK

County delegation vote due today as firefighters drop opposition

General Assembly

March 16, 2007|By Dan Lamothe | Dan Lamothe,Sun Reporter

A bill that would allow Anne Arundel County to outlaw all roadside panhandling is expected to clear its last major hurdle today, after lawmakers reached a compromise with its major opponent, the local firefighters' union.

The Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters has agreed to withdraw its objections after receiving assurances it will be allowed to run its "Fill the Boot" fundraising campaign in new places, including outside grocery stores and the Maryland Seafood Festival.

The union had fought a bill proposed by Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a College Park Democrat, because it would prevent firefighters from soliciting motorists to contribute to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

County Executive John R. Leopold, who has sought to eliminate panhandling since his days as a member of the House of Delegates, said the compromise was reached after grocery chains Giant Foods and Safeway Inc. promised to allow firefighters to collect for their charity in front of stores.

"It's always helpful when there's a collaborative effort to secure a workable compromise," Leopold said. "I've worked very hard in recent months to build that consensus."

The 15-member county House of Delegates contingent is expected to vote on the bill today; the local Senate delegation has already passed its version. The bill is expected to sail through the full legislature.

Robert S. Stevens, the fire union president, could not be reached for comment yesterday. However, one delegate said the firefighters acquiesced because the union is in the midst of contract negotiations, and could not afford to cross Leopold.

"The reality of the whole thing is, how could they not agree?" said Del. Robert A. Costa, a Deale Republican. "This is probably a battle they don't need to fight right now because of the contract negotiations."

Costa, an Anne Arundel County firefighter who has participated in "Fill the Boot" for many years, said it is worrisome that firefighters will need to collect on private property, where management could later decide the firefighters are not welcome.

"They have been very supportive in the past, but a lot of times customers can get put off by (solicitations). If the stores change their minds, where will they go then?"

Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat who had initially expressed concerns about the bill, said the compromise with firefighters makes it much easier for her to vote for it.

"It was a real concern, whether they could raise their money," she said. "Most of the delegates are supportive (of the bill) now, but you never know until the day you vote."

The bill's supporters said constituents are bothered by the prevalence of panhandling in certain areas of the county, particularly on Route 198 in Laurel and Route 2 in Parole.

"I knocked on more than 10,000 doors last summer while campaigning, and it's something I heard over and over again," Pena-Melnyk said.

The Senate bill was amended to ban people from holding signs on the shoulders of the road, a common practice during election season. Costa said he planned to suggest one.

Historically, restrictions on panhandling have drawn criticisms from civil liberties groups. They say that banning panhandling is unfair to the poor and violates the First Amendment.

The opposition helped stall Leopold's 2004 bill that allowed the county to require panhandlers to get a permit. Janet S. Owens, his predecessor as county executive, also cited the administrative and enforcement burden.

Last year, he also pushed through a bill to ban minors from panhandling. Leopold said yesterday that county residents have made it clear they want panhandling outlawed.

"It's important to take care of the needs of the homeless, and I'm working to increasing funding in the fiscal 2008 budget for faith-based ministering to the poor," Leopold said.

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