MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) — The proposed Pedestrian and Vehicle Safety Act received many complaints from organizations and citizens at a public hearing on Wednesday.
Although the Monongalia County ordinance does not specifically include the word “panhandling,” multiple opponents alleged in their statements that it would affect and ban the right to panhandle and to give money to panhandlers in public spaces. The speech of the ordinance would prevent people from being in the median of roads and keep drivers from stopping on the road to talk to other drivers or pedestrians.
After comments, the commission decided to amend the ordinance, meaning that it will have to go through the readings and public hearing again after modifications are made.
During the meeting on Aug. 16, several groups, including the League of Women Voters of Morgantown/Monongalia County, Mountain State Justice and a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia (ACLU), called the ordinance “unconstitutional.” Letters penned to the Monongalia County Commission said that the ordinance violates peoples’ first amendment rights to free speech and seeks to remove panhandlers “under the guise of safety.”
Several other issues that were brought up by citizens during the public hearing were:
- The ordinance could be easily or unknowingly violated because of the complicated language.
- Using citations as punishment “criminalizes poverty” and could lead to a cycle where people who do panhandle are charged for citations that they aren’t able to pay.
- Enforcing the ordinance could make the current law enforcement staffing issues even worse.
Other citizens said that the act will also prevent people who choose to speak with panhandlers from speaking freely and “is not going to help people.”
In total, six letters/statements were penned to the Monongalia County Commission; four were in opposition of the act, and two from Star City Police Chief Jessica Colebank and Monongalia EMS Executive Director Forest Weyen suggested slight modifications, relating to first responders being in the median.
In response to the public comments, Commissioner Tom Bloom said that some of the citizens are “confusing speech with safety.” Bloom pointed out that a very similar ordinance was recently passed in Alabama and said without the ordinance, the county is enabling the problem instead of solving it.
The several-month process for the current ordinance, which was first discussed back in May, will now take several steps backward as amendments are made and new hearings are scheduled. Bloom told 12 News that he thinks it will be about a month until the new modified ordinance will be up for approval.