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City commission discusses panhandling, scooter rentals

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During their meeting on November 19, the Gainesville City Commission discussed a proposed Pedestrian Safety Ordinance, which is designed to address the panhandling in the city. 

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos spoke first, saying they should separate the issues of pedestrian safety and panhandling: “I want us to talk about pedestrian safety and how do we ensure that people who are in areas where it’s not safe, where there’s a higher danger of being hit by a car… we do have a goal of being Vision Zero, of looking at how do we reduce the chance that they will be injured and hit by a car. Last year we had someone die who was in areas where–unfortunately our city is designed for cars, and I would like to change it around. But we are what we are now… I think people on sidewalk, that’s great. And trying to segregate… cars are here, bikes are here, pedestrians are here, is the safest way for us to move towards a Vision Zero of reducing deaths.”

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Commissioner Harvey Ward agreed that it shouldn’t be called a panhandling ordinance “because that’s not what I’m trying to avoid here. I’m trying to avoid people being killed because they’re standing in medians or walking through traffic or sitting in traffic… We need to do something pretty quickly, as we asked a year ago. Because somebody else is going to die.”

Ward added, “Nobody is standing in the median for six or eight hours a day for fun or because it pays well. It clearly does not. They’re there because they don’t have other options… So we have a responsibility, I think, as does the County, to find out how to provide services for people who find themselves in that situation, and to keep them from that situation. It’s a much bigger issue, and I think the way we approach it is with social workers building trust and approaching people and helping them find services. I think that’s the fairly obvious, yet expensive way to do this. But it’s the obvious move that we need to take.”  

Commissioner Reina Saco wanted to be sure it was enforced on jaywalkers, too: “My concern is, if we enforce this, we enforce it across the board. Because just as much as anyone panhandling, I’ve had students, I’ve had professionals from the university, settle themselves in front of my car at University and 13th, and they’re jaywalking and standing at the median. I don’t want this to be an enforcement against homeless individuals. I want it to be a clean enforcement against everyone who is doing that. And that would be my one concern that when we do this, we don’t do it solely against the individuals standing at the median for an hour. We do it at anyone that we happen to see jaywalking or walking across a median or standing in it to cross the street, rather than walk the ten feet to the crosswalk.”

Mayor Lauren Poe suggested moving forward more aggressively with the City’s Vision Zero plan: “the first thing you do is try to make the city safer for pedestrians.”

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said the difficulty for staff in creating such an ordinance is that “we’ve just been unable to find data that would support certain intersections being dangerous, because what we need to do is define those areas. The second thing is with any ordinance you have to tailor it to address the issue, and in this case… much of the activity that goes on in medians is expressive activity. And that activity is recognized as protected under the first amendment… That then subjects such an ordinance to higher scrutiny.” She went on to say that on August 31, the Oklahoma City ordinance her department was using as a model was struck down as being unconstitutional and a violation of first amendment rights.

Hayes-Santos added, “I don’t want to have someone else die. That is — every time someone dies on our streets, it hurts me because could we have done this better?” He said they should move forward even if it may get challenged because “we need to put the safety of our residents first.”

Commissioner Gigi Simmons chimed in, “I just want to say that one death is too many. Period. That’s too many. And I am interested in an ordinance.”

Hayes-Santos moved to “have City staff come back at the next city commission and to come back on—can we enforce the County ordinance, or are there state statutes that we can enforce that are currently on the books, that we could have at the next city commission meeting, and the second part of the motion is we have staff work on a narrowly tailored pedestrian safety ordinance and bring back a draft in 60 days.”

City Manager Lee Feldman said better median design could be a potential solution to the problem: “I realize these things are ugly… but one solution is potentially putting those flexible sticks up in the median. Now, that would still allow for safe refuge, which is part of why a median is there, but would prevent the walking up and down of a median, which is the bad behavior that we’re trying to potentially correct because that’s what becomes a dangerous activity for the pedestrian.”

The motion passed unanimously.

“The most peaceful Thanksgiving that we’ve had in a generation”

At the end of the afternoon session, Poe urged people to stay home for Thanksgiving: “Anybody else have any… general commission comment? Like stay home for Thanksgiving? Zoom can be an amazing thing. Imagine all of the arguments that are not going to take place this Thanksgiving. It’s going to be the most peaceful Thanksgiving that we’ve had in a generation because of our imposed restrictions.” 

Micromobility (scooter) ordinance

In the evening session, the commission took up the first reading of an ordinance to create “micromobility services,” otherwise known as scooter rentals. The ordinance allows up to 3 vendors, with up to 200 units each. The City expects to start accepting applications in January, with initial deployment in April or May. The devices must stop operating at 10 p.m., and Hayes-Santos moved to allow them to operate 24 hours a day because people who work late at night can use them, which may be safer than “walking around in desolate areas at night.”

Simmons said that could be revisited once the program is operating, but her main concern was that the scooters be affordable.

The motion failed, with Saco, Simmons, Commissioner Gail Johnson, and Poe in dissent. A new motion to pass the ordinance on first reading with limited hours of operation passed unanimously. 

Living wage for City contractors

An ordinance requiring a living wage for City contractors also passed unanimously on first reading. 

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