Legal types and public policy nerds all warned that the city's new two-pronged panhandling ordinance would lead to trouble. But this fast? And with a bunch of altruistic, law-abiding firefighters? Yikes.
First, a quick recap: Missoula's City Council passed an emergency panhandling ordinance Aug. 17 that prohibits aggressive solicitation and restricts where people can ask for assistance. During the debate, Councilman Jason Wiener pointed out that the ordinance looked like it was going to be selectively enforced with "a wink and a nod." In other words, if you looked like a no-good, dirty bum begging for change, the police would take action. But if you looked like a high schooler promoting a car wash, then no worries. The council acknowledged the double-standard, but ultimately voted 7-4 in favor of the law. It went into effect immediately, with a 30-day education period before offenders would be hit with a $100 fine and misdemeanor.
The ordinance passed just in time for the Missoula Fire Department and Missoula Rural Fire District's 55th annual "Fill the Boot" fundraiser, which supports the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Last Saturday, firefighters stopped traffic on Higgins Avenue, asking for donations. That sent some of the panhandling ordinance's critics into a tizzy.
"When I walked up from the market and saw that, I thought, 'There you go. There's your double-standard writ large, just parading down the street," says resident Peter Morsch.
Turns out, the firefighters applied for an exemption to ensure their fundraiser fit within the new law, but that formality only sidesteps the larger problem.
"Who determines the valid cause?" asks Morsch. "Who determines that one person deserves the chance to ask for help, but someone else doesn't? That's what this is all about."
Let's make one thing crystal clear: Nobody, certainly not Morsch, has a problem with firefighters raising money for muscular dystrophy. It's an important and noble cause. The problem is with a nebulous ordinance and how it's enforced.
"The council seemed to think the police would simply know who to arrest," Morsch says. "But that's too much responsibility for the boots on the ground. If they've got nothing to fall back on, you're setting up your boys in blue for a fall."
Morsch isn't the only one concerned about a potential fall. The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana says it also notices problems with the ordinance.
"We are aware of and monitoring what's going on," says director Scott Crichton, "and we want to hear from people who are impacted."
City Council hoped its new law would make panhandling problems disappear, but the issue appears to be begging for a better answer.