For now, it appears the city commission has decided to slow down on ordinances targeting homeless and vagrants in downtown Sarasota. The commission will wait to hear a report from the Suncoast Partnership's Ten Year Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in September or October before taking a vote to change ordinances that would affect homeless feeding.
"What we have looked at and talked about are [diagnosis] for a symptom rather than the issue of the homeless and that’s where our conversation [should be] going," said commissioner Willie Shaw during Wednesday's workshop.
Shaw said Sarasota is once again getting the moniker of "meanest city" regarding its policies targeting the homeless. Shaw said the city should wait until all parties involved get together to have a productive discussion before drafting an ordinance.
During Wednesday's workshop at city hall, city commissioners discussed a petition brought to city earlier this summer by downtown condo owners that requested a change to the city's special events ordinance and commercial vending ordinance.
The vending ordinance regulates that vendors must purchase a yearly permit that allows them to sell items of merchandise in the city. The ordinance does not apply to giveaways, such as a public feeding, and petitioners wanted those giving away freebies to have permits, too.
According to city attorney Robert Fournier, the petitioners also wanted the city to lower the number of people that could gather in "passive" parks from 75 to 12 people.
Passive parks, Fournier said, are smaller, quieter parks in the city. He said the way the petition is drafted, if the city used that language in an ordinance it could be struck down by the court.
If the city changed the special event ordinance, "Any legal analysis of the special event [ordinance] likely will be discussed for 1st Amendment issues," Fournier said.
He added that the 1st Amendment not only applies to conventional speech, but also expressive or non-verbal speech. Under such standards, Fournier said it could be argued that the homeless feedings are expressive conduct speech.
Echoing concerns brought to the discussion by Fournier, commissioner Shannon Snyder said he believed if the city were to amend the ordinance as it is stated in the petition that it would be a waste of taxpayer money because it would be shot down in the court system.
"I don’t think there is enough evidence to support an ordinance that will withstand court scrutiny," Snyder said.
He suggested getting the supporting documentation Fournier said the city would need to prepare an ordinance but only to use it if necessary. Snyder said he was hopeful that when the plan to end homelessness is presented in the fall that no ordinance would have to be amended.
"We want it to go one way, but we are still prepared for the worst case scenario," Snyder said.
"I think we need to move forward and hopefully get all the stakeholders at the table," said Mayor Suzanne Atwell. "We need to get information, get documentation. There's a lot more work to be done on this. The larger picture here [is to end] homelessness."
The next time there is a public hearing on the issue of feeding the homeless the commission said it will be the only item on the agenda. Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said it was unfortunate the last public comments were limited to two minutes.
Commissioners agreed and said public comments during the future public hearing will be five minutes.