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Sebastopol council restricts panhandlers

The Sebastopol City Council Tuesday night approved an ordinance that restricts panhandling, which city officials say has increased in the past few months.

No longer will panhandllers be allowed to solicit occupants of vehicles along streets and in parking lots and people at banks and ATMs, according to the ordinance.

"This is targeted to address traffic safety and personal safety," said Police Chief Jeff Weaver.

Santa Rosa resident Elizabeth Neylon, who said she has been panhandling for more than 17 years, told the council that the ordinance violates her freedom of speech and vowed to violate it.

"We are living in a most polluted, violent world and to suppress freedom of speech is an absurdity," Neylon said. "When I stand by the side of the road, it's also a religious gesture."

The measure comes a month after the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce brought the issue to the council's attention, saying that some businesses were complaining.

Weaver said he has also received a couple dozen complaints from people who were made to feel uncomfortable by the panhandlers.

Weaver acknowledged that the practice is considered a form of free speech and has been protected by the U.S. Supreme Court, but said there is allowance for some restrictions.

Council members said they felt the ordinance was a conservative approach to the problem. "This can help our community and it is not particularly harsh," said Councilwoman Kathleen Shaffer.

Councilwoman Sarah Gurney said that as this step is taken Sebastopol needs to remain compassionate.

Gurney said the community needs to "continue to keep generosity in our hearts so we recognize true need and donate in ways that provide for people."

The ordinance passed on a 5-0 vote. It will have a second reading on Nov. 1 and it will take effect 30 days later.

Violators can be cited to appear in traffic court although the size of the fine has not been set.

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