ACLU suing Oklahoma City over panhandling ordinance

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OKLAHOMA CITY - The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Oklahoma City over a controversial ordinance that prevents people from standing in street medians.

The ACLU plans to hand-deliver the lawsuit to City Hall Wednesday morning.

"It's very important that this thing starts where it should, which is right back to the city council," said ACLU Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson. "They're the source of the problem that caused us to file this lawsuit."

The lawsuit is in response to the so-called "Median Safety Ordinance," which the city council passed in December.

After receiving complaints from citizens and local businesses, Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer authored the measure that keeps all people off city medians.

The only exceptions are for medians that are 30 feet wide, located more than 200 feet away from any intersection or contain benches or other features designed for public use.

Intersections that are designated on public trails or public parks would also be exempt from the law.

Violators face a $100 fine.

The ordinance passed 7-2 after a lengthy discussion and, at times, heated debate.

Opponents railed against a law they said criminalized the poor and targeted the needy.

"It takes in a lot of conduct and makes it illegal when it doesn't need to," Henderson said. "[The Council] forgot really to look at the interests of all their citizens. They forgot about common sense, and they forgot about the Constitution."

Henderson and the ACLU point to hundreds of pages of emails and other public documents they said show the council deliberately mislead Oklahoma City residents.

Once it became clear an "anti-panhandling ordinance" would face opposition, Henderson said city leaders re-branded the effort as a "public safety campaign."

"That was always the intention behind this, was to deal with the discomfort of certain people who were well-to-do, had influence and didn't want to see people for whom the economic boom has not worked," he said, specifically pointing to the Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma.

In a July email, before the ordinance was introduced, director Georgie Rasco wrote to Councilwoman Salyer: "I would like for this meeting to be a way for the City and Police to tell business owners how to best protect their properties/businesses from panhandlers and/or homeless."

And, in September, once the ordinance was introduced, Rasco pushed her volunteers to support Salyer's efforts.

"This clearly shows the City of OKC needs to react to a serious problem that is plaguing our neighborhoods and local business owners alike," she wrote. "They cannot allow a small group of territorial panhandlers to ruin property values, devalue businesses and chase away a vital customer base."

Salyer disputes what the ACLU said, noting she's been working for years to find a way to direct donations to the most needy - which the Homeless Alliance said most often is not the people asking for money on the street.

An email from Oct. 4, 2013 invites community leaders to a "Homeless Summit" to address the issue.

"Public safety was the common thread that went through all of our conversations," she told NewsChannel 4. "A firefighter was killed [in Lansing, Mich.] during the Pass the Boot campaign while we were working on this ordinance. We also lost a panhandler, someone that was soliciting from the medians during the time it was passed. So, I can't allow you to discount the safety issue."

And, though city attorneys refused to comment citing the pending litigation, Salyer said a team worked hard to draft a fair measure.

She said the city is ready to defend itself.

"Overwhelmingly, the people I've talked to have said thank you for trying to help an issue that we've all been concerned about," she said.

The ACLU said it's prepared to take its argument to the U.S. Supreme Court and feels it has a good chance of winning.

Twice in the last few years, the ACLU has won First Amendment cases against the city, though neither were related to panhandling.

"I think this case needs to be a victory for the plaintiffs, because it's a victory for all of our First Amendment rights, and it's a victory for common sense," Henderson said. "It's a victory for small unlimited government."

The ACLU will present its lawsuit to the city Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

Read: Previous KFOR coverage of the panhandling issue.

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