By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
The Grand Island Town Board set a hearing to consider a new law to address panhandling on the Island.
The board voted 5-0 Tuesday during its meeting to set the hearing for local law intro No. 4 of 2020 on aggressive solicitation law. The board will meet Monday, Feb. 3, at 8 p.m. to take citizen input on the matter.
Residents have complained to police and the Town Board of a number of panhandlers in town working in the business districts. A panhandler claiming to be stranded with car trouble was working the parking lot of Town Hall before the Jan. 3 Town Board meeting.
“Essentially, the draft law will prevent solicitation, including panhandling, from various areas, like within 20 feet from an ATM or a bank, and prevent or prohibit aggressive solicitation pretty much in any public area or parking area,” Councilman Tom Digati said at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting when the board voted.
The law if passed “is intended to be a mechanism to help alleviate the problem we have,” Digati said. “It’s not the end all, be all but an important consideration. For those who do have plenty of questions, feel free to reach out to us. But panhandling, as inconvenient as some may find it, is protected First Amendment speech. So this law is tailored as best we can to meet the needs of our community and it’s what we can do for now.”
Digati said after the meeting that the law would prevent “any solicitation whatsoever within 20 feet of an ATM, a bank, check cashing facility, stuff like that. It prohibits aggressive solicitation, from any parking lot and public space, and that would be anything that has physical contact. Basically, if somebody says ‘No,’ you can’t follow them. Anything that would make somebody feel unsafe.”
“The problem we’re running into is when you’re dealing with parking lots and stuff, (panhandlers are) not really trespassers, and this (law) helps close that gap and gives the police some teeth where if they find them there, they can get them out of there and they can issue a violation,” Digati said.
The law would not prohibit such groups as The Salvation Army bellringers from taking donation with their famous red kettles seen at stores at Christmastime, or Girl Scouts from selling their cookies.
Digati said the law would prohibit panhandling near ATMs and banks because “people are inherently uncomfortable there.”
Digati said the law is “not the solution because there are issues with The Jade Inn and we’re exploring what we can do to help alleviate the problem there, and this is a step in the right direction,”
The Jade Inn is a motel on Grand Island Boulevard just up the road from the Grand Island Plaza where panhandlers have been frequenting.
Digati said, “it sounds like there’s something going on and we’re doing what we can to get to the bottom of it.”
As reported in the Nov. 22 Island Dispatch, Rachel Novelli, director of the Grand Island Dance Center, said her dance school in the plaza has had “two of our older girls approached and asked for money.”
“We were wondering what to do about it, so I went to the State Police and the sheriffs to find out what our options are,” Novelli said. “A police officer told me that there is no law against panhandling in the town of GI, but that we should call 911 every time we see a suspicious person, and they will send both the State Police and the sheriffs by to check on us and make sure everything is OK.”
The Grand Island Plaza is also home to a bank branch and ATM.
“I just wanted to be sure that our dancers and dance families are safe, and not being bothered when coming and going from the parking lot to our studio,” Novelli said at the time.
The next regular meeting of the Grand Island Town Board will be at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3, in Grand Island Town Hall, 2255 Baseline Road.
Send comments to the board at [email protected].