The most recent public discussions about panhandling remind me of the great sage Yogi Berra’s reference to “deja vu all over again.” We’ve done this before.
Commissioner Montagnino’s New and Apparently Useless Penal Code Proposal to Stop Panhandling Gets Rejected by Council
Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino, to great fanfare, announced his proposed new City Ordinance Chapter 55 titled Aggressive Solicitation to the City code.
This is a prime example of a politician responding to an intransigent problem with the illusion of a solution.
As stated by Commissioner Montagnino, this code enforcement language was taken from one adopted by the City of Rochester. He told the media that the language of the code had withstood numerous court challenges.
He conveniently passed over the history of Rochester’s code, however. It was adopted in 2004 and included special fines, but Betty McBride, a clerk in the office of the Rochester Chief of Police, told Saratoga Today:
It’s a city code, but they don’t give tickets. They choose not to. What we do is we try to help out; offer resources to get shelter, get clothing and food.Betty McBride
So if they do not actually use the code to give tickets to enforce limits on panhandling, it doesn’t sound like Rochester’s code has any record of impacting panhandling.
At the July 2, 2022, Council meeting, Commissioner Montagnino presented his proposed code. At the public hearing, speakers spoke for and against the proposal. Most of those speaking against the proposal focused on the vagueness of the term “aggressive” and expressed concern over criminalizing the homeless and the lack of affordable housing.
When the proposal came up on the agenda, there was a rambling discussion among Council members over whether to table the proposal, fund a study, or put a sunset clause on the code. Usually, Council members in the past who wanted support for an initiative would have one on one conversations with their fellow Council members to explain their proposal, listen to and try to address any concerns before taking it for a vote at the Council table. This is a useful strategy that can result in a better proposal coming to the table that will have majority support or maybe the dropping of a proposal because these discussions made clear that it wouldn’t have the votes to pass. Listening to Council members ask the most basic questions about this legislation made me wonder if Montagnino had bothered to do this.
The most thoughtful comment came from Public Safety Commissioner Jason Golub:
The resolution failed with Montagnino and Mayor Kim voting yes and Finance Commissioner Sanghvi, Public Works Commissioner Golub, and Accounts Commissioner Moran voting no.
Mayor Kim and Chamber of Commerce Executive Todd Shimkus Repackage a Failed Policy
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus and Mayor Kim drew extensive media coverage for a plan to hand homeless panhandlers a card rather than money. The card lists the services available to homeless people.
I ran the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (now re-branded as LifeWorks) for sixteen years and had plenty of interactions with homeless people over that time. Many homeless people often suffer from mental, alcohol, and drug problems. Still, it is the rare homeless person who has not learned through their network about what community services are available.
This card policy is especially aggravating because this same program, carried out during the Joanne Yepsen administration, was a resounding failure, and Mr. Shimkus knows this.
I have talked to one of the downtown business owners who told me that, as far as they know, no businesses are using the cards. When you think about it, how are they supposed to use these cards? Are they supposed to give a stack to each customer?
I advise anyone that handing one of these cards to an unknown panhandler is not a good idea. Giving them one of these cards rather than money invites a potentially very unpleasant interaction.
How About Deploying a Police Officer on Foot to Patrol the Downtown?
Unless a police officer observes a crime, it is difficult to successfully ticket anyone. As Commissioner Montagnino conceded during the August 2, 2022, meeting, an accusation is hard to prove without supporting evidence such as witnesses or video.
One owner of a downtown business told me there was a time when the city assigned a police officer on foot to patrol downtown. They noted that while it wasn’t a panacea, it did act to lessen the general aggressiveness of panhandlers. If Commissioner Montagnino really wants to do something, he should find a way to deploy officers on the street again.