URBANA — City council members say a rewritten ordinance regulating "aggressive panhandling" needs to be rewritten one more time before they give it their formal endorsement.
They supported the ordinance on Monday night, but fearing it could attach a negative connotation to the practice, council members want to divorce the language outlawing aggressive behavior from the idea of legitimate panhandling.
When the ordinance returns next week for their approval, it will be a proposal regulating "aggressive solicitation" — not panhandling.
The panhandling term "is targeting those that are disadvantaged," said Alderman Robert Lewis, D-Ward 3. "If in any way the city can address this issue by not putting these folks at a disadvantage, then I think that's what the general populace is telling us."
The council has now spent three weeks and about six hours discussing the proposal and hearing from citizens. Originally, the ordinance was broader in scope and would have put limitations on non-aggressive panhandling. After hearing comments from the public, the ordinance was rewritten to address only aggressive behaviors related to panhandling.
The aggressive behaviors — threatening gestures, abusive language, touching or blocking one's path, according to the ordinance — have become a problem particularly in southeast Urbana, city officials have said.
Many residents who oppose the language have been recurring speakers during the previous weeks' public comment periods, and in general, they said on Monday that the revised ordinance was a slight improvement but still not acceptable.
"The issue is that if we single out panhandling, then the law is discriminating against the poor," said former city council member Danielle Chynoweth.
But the goal has never been to criminalize the poor or even target a certain population, said acting city attorney Curt Borman. Rather, it has been to prevent behavior that could become troublesome.
"If we wait for battery to occur, then we fail," Borman said. "And, I think, if we wait for assaults to occur, then we fail."
Lewis said delineating rules about "aggressive solicitation" is broader in scope and its connotation. The aggressive behaviors city officials are trying to regulate would be viewed as just that, "rather than pin it to panhandling," he said.
He asked Borman if it would change the practical use of the law if the word were replaced.
"We can get to where we need to be with the denotation and change the connotation," Borman responded.