By Scott Carter
EDITORS NOTE: On Nov. 19, 2015, the ACLU of Oklahoma filed an open records request with the city of Oklahoma City, seeking emails and other documents pertaining to the development and passage of an anti-panhandling ordinance written by Ward 6 councilwoman Meg Salyer. On Dec. 4, Assistant Municipal Counselor Richard Smith replied, asking that ACLU Oklahoma further "refine" its request.
"I believe we could expedite the process, if you are willing to be more specific as to the type of record you are seeking," Smith wrote.
ACLU Oklahoma agreed to extra time for the request. In late January, Oklahoma City officials released 756 pages of documents relating to the ordinance. ACLU of Oklahoma requested copies of 425 pages. Of those 425 documents, about 80 pages were the basis for this story. Many of them can be found in links embedded throughout this story. All 80 pages are available here.
OKLAHOMA CITY – Faced with stinging criticism and questions about possible constitutional problems, Oklahoma City municipal officials worked to recast a controversial anti-panhandling ordinance as a public safety tool to ensure its passage and squelch complaints, records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma show.
In addition, city officials delayed the ordinance’s final passage until they could cut an undisclosed deal with the two groups that would be most visibly harmed by the law – the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The records – hundreds of pages of emails and documents – show that city officials only began using the public safety moniker after critics of the proposal raised questions about the constitutionality of the ordinance and its effect on the poor.
Authored by Ward 6 Councilmember Meg Salyer, the anti-panhandling ordinance targeted panhandlers and others who used medians to solicit donations. The ordinance prevents panhandlers and others from using medians less than 30 feet in width, but includes an exemption for individuals responding to an emergency.
The original version of the ordinance excluded the exemption and included a $500 fine and possible jail time. That provision was changed later to reduce the fine to $100.
Money, not safety
Records show the anti-panhandling ordinance was spawned in part by merchant’s complaints about the homeless individuals in the metro area particularly those around 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Oklahoma City municipal officials began to flesh out the ordinance during
the spring and summer of 2015.
Emails show that merchants along Pennsylvania Avenue and the Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma worked together to push member of the Oklahoma City council to crack down on the panhandlers and homeless individuals who stayed in the area.
However, only a few of those complaints mentioned public safety.
Instead, most of the complaints raised by the merchants and the Neighborhood Alliance were about the area’s image and the impact of having homeless individuals and panhandlers in the area.
In a September 22, 2015 email, Neighborhood Alliance executive director Georgie Rasco wrote, “panhandling first and foremost degrades the person who is relegated to standing on a street corner to ask for money. (It) hurts our businesses, our property values and perceived or real safety issues abound.”
Rasco also claimed that many citizens in the area said “they no longer supported” the businesses at that intersection due to alleged harassment from panhandlers.
“This clearly shows that the City of OKC needs to react to a serious problem,” Rasco wrote. “They cannot allow a small group of territorial panhandlers to ruin property values, devalue businesses and chase away a vital customer base.”
Rasco did not release the names of citizens who made the complaints, nor did she say if those citizens were concerned about their safety. Questioned by ACLU Oklahoma Rasco, after initially agreeing answer questions about the Neighborhood Alliance’s efforts to pass the ordinance, later refused to respond.
In a Feb. 9, 2016 email to the ACLU Oklahoma, she said was “answering your questions and would be back in touch with you soon.” But in a second email to the ACLU, sent six days later, Rasco refused to comment.
“I’m sorry…but we are not participating on any media on this issue,” she wrote.
The August 7 meeting
After she received complaints about panhandlers in the area, Oklahoma City Councilwoman Meg Salyer hosted a meeting to discuss panhandling in the 23rd Street and Pennsylvania area.
That meeting, held August 7, 2015, included Salyer, the Neighborhood Alliance, merchants from the 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue area, and staff members for the City of Oklahoma City.
During the meeting an outline of the ordinance was developed.
Hand-written on the back of a legal folder, the draft ordinance was labeled “anti-panhandling ordinance” and stated that the ordinance’s purpose was to “prohibit pedestrian solicitation within road medians and in the roadway.”
An email, dated August 17, 2015, from Ken Jordan, the city council’s attorney, to Kathy Smith, Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher’s assistant, noted that Salyer was working on changes to Code Section 32-458 “to ban panhandling-soliciting on all medians.”
In a second email, sent the next day, Jordan said three members of his staff were working on the project, using anti-panhandling ordinances from Sacramento County, California and Evanston, Illinois as a foundation for the Oklahoma City ordinance.
“We plan to draft a list of any differences between the Evanston and Sacramento regulations and the current OKC panhandling-soliciting regulations and then provide the councilman with advice about whether we think any of these additional regulations would likely be found constitutional or unconstitutional,” Jordan wrote.
Neither of Jordan’s messages mentioned public safety as a reason for the ordinance.
Later, on September 3, 2015, an email from Debi Martin, chief of staff for the council, noted that Salyer’s ordinance “would prohibit persons from being in medians for the purpose of soliciting.” Martin’s email also indicated the police were “continuing rigid enforcement of city ordinances and state law at 23rd (Street) and Penn” against the homeless individuals who frequented the area.
The marketing campaign
City officials had planned a two-pronged approach to shut down panhandling in the metro area: the new, stronger ordinance and a marketing campaign urging residents not to give to panhandlers, but to contribute to community service organizations.
The marketing plan was to include videos, media releases, brochures, signs, posters and an Internet website.
Kristy Yager, spokeswoman for Oklahoma City’s municipal government, confirmed efforts to develop the campaign. She said her office worked with Upward Transitions and the Homeless Alliance to develop the program in 2014.
In an email to ACLU Oklahoma, Yager said part of the strategy for the campaign was to “raise awareness that giving to panhandlers does not solve their problem and in many cases contributions keep them from getting the help they need.”
Yager described the initial reception to the campaign as “cool.” She said some members of the marketing team were concerned that the campaign could have a negative effect on the poor and how residents view the poor.
“At that point we took a step back from the campaign,” Yager said. “We did more research on other community campaigns and rethought different approaches.”
Later, after the anti-panhandling ordinance passed the city council in December, the Homeless Alliance and Voice, a coalition largely made up of religious organizations – withdrew their support.
“I was disappointed, but not surprised when Homeless Alliance let me know they didn't intend to move forward as a partner in the campaign,” Yager said. “The last time I spoke with Nick at Voice in early January he suggested we wait until the dust settles to see what effects the median safety ordinance would have on panhandlers before moving forward - it may require we retool our messages.”
Yager said the campaign was named "Make Real Change with your Spare Change."
The ordinance was introduced on September 14, 2015 and a public hearing was held on September 29. A revised version of the ordinance eventually passed on a 7-2 vote December 8, 2015.
The marketing campaign has not been released.
The public fight
On September 15, 2015, Salyer introduced the ordinance during the Oklahoma City council’s weekly meeting.
That day, Salyer told media representatives that quality of life concerns helped shape the ordinance. She said Oklahoma City residents told her “their quality of life was destroyed” by seeing panhandlers every morning as the residents drove through the intersection of NW 23 and Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Why should that have to be in our community?” Salyer said in an interview with The Oklahoman newspaper. “We can do better.”
Salyer said little about safety. Within days the proposal quickly became controversial.
While Salyer and others talked of quality of life issues, officials from the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the IAFF went public, saying the ordinance would gut funding for the MDA’s Fill-the-Boot campaign. Phil Sipe, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 157, told Oklahoma City officials that Oklahoma City firefighters annually collected about $300,000 to support families affected by muscle diseases.
Sipe predicted donations could drop 75 percent to 80 percent. He said that decrease would be a “blow to families” who depend on the money given by the public each year.
After that meeting, city officials went into crisis control mode.
The ink on the anti-panhandling ordinance was barely dry before questions were raised about whether or not the proposal violated the U.S. Constitution.
After the terse public hearing on September 29, critics of the measure – including ACLU of Oklahoma – questioned whether or not the proposal violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
But the proposal's critics weren’t the only ones with concerns.
About a month before the ordinance was filed Jordan, the city’s attorney, sent a second email to Stonecipher. In that email, dated August 18, Jordan raised questions about whether or not the ordinance would be constitutional.
“The downside of adopting additional panhandling-soliciting regulations that could be unconstitutional would be a federal court lawsuit by the ACLU (or some other civil rights attorneys) on behalf of panhandlers for violation of their First Amendment rights since the right to beg or seek alms in a public place is First Amendment activity.”
Two months later, on October 1, ACLU Oklahoma raised similar questions in a letter hand-delivered to each member of the city council. The ACLU’s letter said the proposal criminalized poverty, and at the same time, created a prior restraint on the First Amendment.
In his response, sent on October 6, Jordan told the ACLU that city officials believed to ordinance to be constitutional and added the ordinance didn’t target panhandling but was, instead, focused on public safety – a stark contrast from his earlier statements.
Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma, said the documents prove that Oklahoma City officials were focused on the poor and knew their ordinance wouldn’t pass a constitutional test.
“It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here,” Henderson said. “Behind the scenes they are saying one thing, but publicly they are saying the opposite. They know this ordinance was a bad idea but instead of facing the problem and making better policy, they started trying to dress it up so they could sell it to the public.”
The MDA/IAFF deal
With opposition from key players mounting, and a possible public relations nightmare brewing, Salyer moved to delay the final vote on the ordinance. At the same time city officials were moving to work out a deal with fire fighters and the MDA.
During the September 14 meeting of the Oklahoma City council, MDA and fire fighters expressed concern about the ordinance and its impact on the fire fighter’s annual Fill the Boot campaign, a fundraiser for the MDA.
At that time, MDA Executive Director Andrea Pope told media representatives that similar ordinances in other cities decreased collections by up to 75 percent.
On October 9, Salyer announced the ordinance had been put on hold.
Salyer told The Oklahoman newspaper that she was interested in gathering more statistical information about traffic safety and panhandling.
“There's a need to refine the definition of ‘median’ in the proposed ordinance,” she said.
Final action on the ordinance was delayed until December 8, 2015.
However, records indicate that Salyer, city staff and others were already working to put together a deal that would allow fire fighters – and the MDA – to seek donations in the parking lots of Wal-Mart stores and the company’s smaller, Neighborhood Markets.
Emails show that Salyer had known in early August fire fighters and their charity would be included in the median ban. An Aug. 7, 2015 email from Oklahoma City Police Captain Ryan Boxwell references a meeting between city council members, OCFD and MDA to discuss the idea of moving the Fill the Boot campaign out of city streets and to private store parking lots.
“If this is allowed (the compromise), the city can-will change ordinance, making standing in median illegal,” Boxwell wrote.
About a week later, in an Aug. 16 email, Jordan, the city council’s attorney, wrote that Salyer’s ordinance would also include provisions that applied “across the board” to all solicitors “including firefighters who now have a special exemption allowing them to walk in the street, even in lanes of traffic, based on getting a permit and posting a bond.”
While one part of Oklahoma City’s municipal government worked to develop a deal that would allow fire fighters to keep their campaign, other sections of city government doubled down on their efforts to recast the ordinance as a public safety issue.
In his October 6 letter to ACLU Oklahoma, Jordan said the ordinance was “a traffic safety measure.” That same day, Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty told a non-profit representative the ordinance “does not criminalize panhandling.”
At that same time, city officials put the finishing touches on a slide presentation about the ordinance, set to be viewed during an upcoming city council meeting.
Emails indicate that Citty forwarded the presentation to assistant city manager M.T. Berry for review. Berry replied on Oct. 8, saying the presentation “looks good,” but asked that the presentation be renamed as a ‘median safety presentation’ or “something other than panhandler.”
Citty and Berry continued to rebrand the ordinance as a public safety issue. At the same time, other city officials pushed for an agreement between the MDA, fire fighters and businesses that would allow the MDA to use their facilities.
Just before Thanksgiving those efforts proved successful.
On November 20, 2015, Debi Martin, the council’s chief of staff, contacted a representative of Wal-Mart about moving fire fighters and their Fill the Boot campaign to Wal-Mart stores.
Rebecca Powell, a Wal-Mart regional assistant, up-streamed the request to Wal-Mart Regional Manager Rodney Walker that same day. Powell asked Walker if it would be possible to allow municipal firefighters to collect money for the MDA at Wal-Mart stores.
“OKC is trying to pass a bill for no solicitation on center medians of a city street,” Powell wrote in an email to Walker. “Meaning this rule would apply to the fire departments as well, and they are trying to find a solution for them.”
Three days later, on November 23, Powell emailed Martin a second time, saying it “looks like we have approval for the firefighters.”
Armed with a deal that allowed fire fighters to continue their MDA campaign, city officials put the ordinance back on the calendar for a final vote.
On December 8, 2015, the Oklahoma City Council adopted the ordinance, placing new restrictions on panhandling.
The final version of the ordinance, passed on a 7-2 vote, outlawed most activities in city street medians within 200 feet of an intersection. Only Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid and Ward 4 Councilman Pete White voted no.