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Panhandling ordinance repeal heading to Grand Forks City Council next week

Grand Forks leaders recommended the repeal of an ordinance that bans panhandling and a slew of related activities on Monday evening, the earliest vote in an effort to excise a law that's become difficult to defend.

Grand Forks City Hall (Herald photo/Sam Easter)
Grand Forks City Hall (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

Grand Forks leaders recommended the repeal of an ordinance that bans panhandling and a slew of related activities on Monday evening, the earliest vote in an effort to excise a law that's become difficult to defend.

A 5-0 vote by the city's Committee of the Whole moves the matter before the City Council next week, where a discussion is expected on how the city should deal with a thorny question: What should be done with an apparently useful law that, thanks to court rulings around the country, looks like it wouldn't hold up to a legal challenge?

The issue at stake is an ordinance that bans panhandling, political pamphleting, solicitation and other kinds of activities "on any roadway, highway, street, alley, intersection" or other, similar parts of the city. According to a long list of recent court decisions, City Attorney Howard Swanson said that law has become open to challenges based on the First Amendment.

"It's pretty clear that an ordinance of this nature cannot survive judicial scrutiny," he said, which could potentially lead the city into a lawsuit, the cost of which he couldn't estimate.

But some council leaders say they’re is still more to discuss. Council President Dana Sande said the law can work as an important tool for law enforcement officers -- one that helps work with violators even if they don’t use it to issue a citation -- and he was loath to rescind it.

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"Unless someone comes to us and challenges our ordinances, I don't see why we would repeal our ordinance. ... I for one am not excited about repealing," he said.

Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel addressed the law in a phone call with the Herald earlier on Monday. He said that citations stemming from the law are rare, with only four since the beginning of 2011 and none in 2015 or 2016. He said that calls for service related to the law are at 23 so far this year after 28 in 2015, 18 in 2014, 15 in 2013 and 23 in 2012.

So would losing the law be problematic?

"Anytime we get a call for someone who acts suspiciously, anyone who is acting alarmingly ... we have tools at our disposal that would allow us to interact with that individual and take appropriate action," Zimmel said.

Repealing the law would take two appearances before the City Council, the first of which is expected next week. Council members Bret Weber and Sandi Marshall were absent from Monday's committee meeting.

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