Proposed Fresno panhandling ordinance fails after drawing opposition at City Council

Panhandling proposal mostly panned at Fresno City Hall

Opponents and at least one supporter spoke out about Steve Brandau's panhandling proposal Thursday afternoon
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Opponents and at least one supporter spoke out about Steve Brandau's panhandling proposal Thursday afternoon

“Embarrassing,” “mean,” “lipstick on a pig,” “lazy” and “ignorant” were just a few words many residents on Thursday used to describe the proposed Fresno City Council ordinance to ticket motorists who donate to panhandlers.

After nearly four hours of public comment and council debate, the council voted down the proposal 3-2 with Steve Brandau and Paul Caprioglio supporting. Miguel Arias, Garry Bredefeld and Esmeralda Soria opposed it. Luis Chavez abstained, and Nelson Esparza was absent.

The vote came after hours of drama and some suspense, with Chavez withdrawing his support minutes before the vote and Arias seconding Brandau’s motion — forcing the item to a vote.

The ordinance was spearheaded by Brandau and cosponsored by Caprioglio and Chavez. It would have established the offense of “unlawful transfer on vehicular right of way,” making it illegal for a driver or passenger to give any item to a pedestrian. The new offense could result in an infraction and fine.

Arias, Esparza and Soria vocally opposed the proposal prior to Thursday’s meeting, calling on Mayor Lee Brand to veto the ordinance if their other council colleagues passed it.

“We are criminalizing law-abiding citizens and their generosity,” Soria said during Thursday’s meeting. She said if the ordinance passed, it was sure to meet a legal fight in court.

Brand opposed the policy. In a statement, the mayor said the ordinance did nothing to address the root cause of homelessness or pedestrian safety. He also said police can use existing laws to increase pedestrian safety.

“Fining the well-intentioned actions of good people who are unwittingly enabling a transient way of life is not the way to go,” he said.

“There are better ways to help those in need, starting with our Street2Home initiative. We need to redirect people who are big-hearted and well-meaning from giving directly to panhandlers to donating to organizations with proven track records of helping those among us who are down and out and need our help. I think we can reduce panhandling without criminalizing generosity.”

Police Chief Jerry Dyer expressed concerns during the meeting about the proposal becoming law, saying the department already lacks resources and receives thousands of calls for service annually.

Dyer worried trust and support for officers would be diminished as a result of enforcing the ordinance. “We are going to be citing those individuals who simply feel they are doing a good deed,” Dyer told the council.

Answering a question from Arias about whether he would support the proposal if he were a council member, Dyer said he would not.

Bredefeld, the only council member who didn’t voice his position before the meeting, said he had trouble supporting the ordinance after Chavez withdrew his support and Caprioglio asked to pull the item from a vote.

Bredefeld said he believes giving money to panhandlers perpetuates homelessness. “It’s not humane for this to continue. We have to find ways and solutions to deal with this problem,” he said. “There are many people, no matter how much you try to reach out, who are not accepting of the help.”

Arias echoed the sentiment of many residents who spoke at the meeting, saying the ordinance was one of the most anti-Christian policies he’d seen. “We as a city can and must do better,” he said.

An attorney with the ACLU of Northern California penned a letter to the council earlier this week noting the proposed ordinance attempts to regulate activity likely protected by the First Amendment.

Dozens of residents spoke out against the proposal Thursday. “I’m appalled by the City Council’s reputation of trying to further criminalize the homeless. This is only adding insult to injury,” said Jordan Fitzpatrick.

He noted the work program won’t help many of the homeless who are unable to work because they have disabilities. “We shouldn’t have to prove our worth in order to get the help and resources we need. The City Council has made it abundantly clear that you hate poor people. Prove me wrong. Help us.”

One resident who spoke in favor of the ordinance, Martha Kolsted, said she believed the conversation around the ordinance was purposely misrepresented.

“Any opportunity to presume racism, hate or whatever, I don’t believe that’s where this is coming from,” she said. “I believe all of you are here doing your jobs because you want to represent the people – all the people.”