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Public Hearing Set On Commerce/Panhandling Ordinance

/ The Upper Cumberland's News Leader

Cookeville residents will get the chance to sound off on a proposed panhandling ordinance as Cookeville City Council approved a revised measure Thursday night.

The ordinance passed 3-2 with council members Mark Miller and Charles Womack voting against the ordinance. Council will host a public hearing at the next meeting September 17 as the ordinance comes up for a second reading.

“This changes the municipal code and that typically does not require a public hearing, but the council feels like this is such an important issue that they wanted to have a public hearing before second reading,” City Manager James Mills said.

The ordinance prohibits the conducting of commerce including panhandling on right of ways, sidewalks, and streets inside the city limits. Mills revised the ordinance after it failed to get a second at a meeting two weeks ago.

“The significant revisions to the ordinance is the inclusion of a preamble stating the purpose for the provisions, so that’s included in the first section of it,” Mills said. “One of the modifications specifies that the provisions about soliciting or accepting donations applies only to intersections on minor collector or higher classifications of streets.”

Mills used the major and minor arterial as well as the major and minor collector classification of streets to limit the ordinance. Several council members had expressed concern that the public safety of panhandlers or residents in vehicles would not be a factor on neighborhood streets. A major arterial would include East 10th Street, East Spring Street, Interstate Drive, Willow Avenue or Jefferson Avenue. Minor arterial examples include large parts of 12th Street, Tennessee Avenue and Washington Avenue.

Mills also revised the civic penalty for violating the ordinance to $10 on first offense, $25 for the second offense and $50 for offense number three. Court costs are waived.

The revised ordinance also sought to protect citizens in restricted spaces. It would prohibit commerce activities where captive audiences could cause concerns such as ATMs, transit stops and walk-up food service locations.

Miller proposed changes to the ordinance including limiting the ordinance to major arteries. He said the ordinance becomes less about safety and more about restrictions to speech on smaller streets. He also proposed an amendment that would substitute a warning for a fine on the first violation. Both proposals failed. However, council members said they would discuss both ideas more before the council holds a second reading.

“I really want to attack the aggressive panhandling issue,” Miller said. “I voted no because there’s no clarification between the unhoused and aggressive panhandling.”

Council member Eric Walker proposed a public hearing to give the entire community a chance to sound-off on the ordinance since the revised ordinance had not been presented publicly prior to the council meeting. Womack said he wanted to hear from citizens on both sides of the issue. He said he had received “eloquent” comments from people against the ordinance.

The council appeared ready to approve the ordinance two weeks ago after discussing it thoroughly at a work session. When Mayor Ricky Shelton presented the measure, no one seconded the ordinance and it failed. No council members at that time or before the meeting asked to have the ordinance removed from the agenda for further discussion. No council members shared their specific concerns publicly during that August meeting.

Mills said Thursday night he had revised the ordinance based on feedback from council members. He presented the changes to council during Monday’s work session. At that time, council went into attorney-privileged session to further discuss the ordinance. Thursday night, council members again tried to work through changes and questions on the measure’s provisions. Walker asked if the ordinance could be revised further before another vote.

Shelton said council members and city officials have received numerous complaints from citizens about the aggressive panhandling issue that has developed suddenly in recent months.


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