Westside leaders, not city attorney, hatched 20-foot rule

       The new 20-foot rule against aggressive panhandlers, which was being touted as a citywide boon this week by the mayor and city attorney, actually emerged at the suggestion of Westside civic leaders… at a pre-City Council meeting with the attorney Nov. 13 that only occurred because two council members asked for it.
       This was the untold story in a Feb. 13 city press release that quotes both Mayor Steve Bach and City Attorney Chris Melcher: “This will help improve commerce and reduce unwanted solicitation of citizens and visitors” (Bach); and “This will benefit not only downtown, but also merchants on the Westside and throughout the city. It accomplishes quite a lot of what we were hoping for, so we're very pleased with that” (Melcher).
       The rule increases from 6 to 20 feet the distance from a building entrance that a person actively begging for money can stand. It is the only significant part of the ordinance (written by Melcher and approved by City Council) that so far has survived a Federal District Court challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
       The most publicized part of the ordinance, banning even passive soliciting downtown, was frozen by an injunction in mid-January by Federal Judge Marsha Krieger. (“Passive” soliciting would be someone standing silently with a sign, while “aggressive” would be someone approaching people.)
       However, Krieger affirmed this week that the injunction did not apply to the 20-foot rule, and city officials have confirmed that the law is in effect now.
       Police Chief Pete Carey said that police will first issue warnings, but any repeat offenders will be given tickets.
       Contacted by the Westside Pioneer this week, several Old Colorado City merchants also spoke favorably of the added distance. Because the Old Town storefronts are closely aligned, that will greatly limit where panhandlers can set up, according to Gold Hill Police Commander Pat Rigdon. “This helps shoppers and merchants feel that they can get in and out of stores without being accosted,” he said. “That can be truly frightening to some people, who don't know what their [the panhandlers'] intentions are.”
       According to Welling Clark, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN, which represents the older Westside), the Nov. 13 meeting with Melcher almost didn't happen. He and others seeking Westside crime prevention through an ad hoc group of civic and business leaders (the Avenue Task Force) had opposed the downtown solicitation zone as a bad solution that would help one part of the community and possibly hurt others by causing panhandlers to flee to them to avoid the downtown zone. However, efforts by task force members to meet with the attorney proved unsuccessful, Clark said.
       Meanwhile, City Council was waiting for Melcher to come back with improvements to the draft ordinance he'd presented to the body in August and September. At least twice, he asked for more time. Then, in November, Mayor Bach announced that he wanted council to take quick action on the ordinance so as to help downtown merchants during the Christmas shopping season.
       In response, council agreed to seek a vote on first reading Nov. 13.
       Concerned, Clark sought help from councilmembers Lisa Czelatdko (whose District 3 includes Old Colorado City) and Jan Martin (a Westside resident and mayor pro-tem). They set up the pre-meeting with Melcher that morning. “If it hadn't been for Jan and Lisa, it never would have happened,” Clark said.
       In addition to the attorney, the two councilmembers and Clark, the meeting attendees consisted of another ATF member, Mike Crepeau, leader of the Avenue Merchants group representing Colorado Avenue businesses west of 31st Street; and Jan Doran, representing the Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO).
       For this story, the Westside Pioneer attempted to talk to all these participants, managing to interview Clark, Czelatdko and Doran.
       Each of them agreed that the 20-foot proposal did not come from the attorney.
       As Clark recalled it, Melcher surprised the group by presenting a city code titled “9.2.111: Solicitation Prohibited.” The draft ordinance that Melcher hadshown council at that point included portions of 9.2.111, but not the code's Section C, because it was not to be amended. Section C restricts “aggressive soliciting,” including a prescribed distance panhandlers can stand from the entrance to a building. At the time it was 6 feet.
       “We didn't know it [that law] existed,” Clark said, referring to himself and others with the ATF. “How could we be expected to know that?” But once they became aware of the distance rule, they started wondering about increasing it, as useful to businesses citywide. On the high side was Crepeau's suggestion for 50 feet, but all Melcher said he thought he could get without a legal challenge was 15, Clark recalled.
       The meeting ended with Clark pledging to talk to various merchants and residents and seek a consensus distance. From those conversations, he suggested 20 feet to Czelatdko, who introduced that proposal at the council meeting that afternoon and it became part of the ordinance - along with the downtown zone - that was approved. Its number title was 12-100.
       After council approval on second reading, 12-100 would have taken effect Dec. 2 except for the ACLU lawsuit that claimed the downtown zone was unconstitutional by denying aggressive as well as passive solicitation.
       But the lawsuit made no mention of the 20-foot rule. So when Judge Krieger slapped the injunction on 12-100, city officials asked exactly what was being denied. And this week the judge said the rule was not part of the injunction.
       “Some of us on council had been thinking about tweaking the old ordinance instead of writing a new one,” Czelatdko said. “Welling said what about expanding the number of feet in front of a business. So I brought it up at council. It was a great idea, and it may be the only thing [from the ordinance] that's upheld.”
       John Edwards, a jewelry shop owner in Old Colorado City, said the 20-foot rule will help merchants. With the added distance for panhandlers, “where are they going to go - into the street?” he asked.
       Keith Canfield, who owns an Old Town specialty shop with his wife Bernideen, was pleased to learn that the distance between their front door and the farthest merchant on either side was 36 feet. “So we're covered in front of our store,” he said.
       Julie Fabrizio, president of the Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) business group, has no problem with the 20-foot law, but believes that the key is enforcement of all laws related to panhandlers. “It can be scary, as a female business owner,” she said, adding that she escorts single women with their purchases back to their cars, believing that two women will appear less vulnerable. In that regard, she said she is grateful for the beefed-up police response that she's seen in Old Colorado City in recent months.
       Simultaneous with 12-100, council passed an ordinance numbered 12-101. It was an amendment to the city traffic code, which Melcher told council would make aggressive panhandlers liable to traffic tickets on West Colorado Avenue west of 31st Street. He said this was because that part of the avenue was a business route for the state's Highway 24. However, it later turned out that the Federal Highway Administration does not recognize that road segment as part of its highway system, so the law has no effect there.
       The Westside Pioneer asked Melcher in December why he did not check this fact before writing the ordinance. He has not yet responded.

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