Editorials, Opinion

Mon Commission’s not-panhandling ordinance unlikely to work as intended

Today, the Pedestrian and Vehicle Safety Ordinance will once again be up for public comment and possibly for passage at the Monongalia County Commission meeting. The current draft ordinance can be found at monongaliacounty.gov under the “county ordinance” link.

Also known as the panhandling ordinance (because that’s who the law targets), if passed, the ordinance would make it illegal not only to be in the median or other rights-of-way for a purpose other than crossing the road, it would also make it illegal for anyone in a vehicle to hand something off — like money — to someone in the median.

The proposed law has undergone some changes since the first draft. Originally, a first offense would have resulted in a citation with an informative handout, and the penalties for subsequent offenses included fines from $100 to $1,000 and/or jail time. In the latest draft, the penalties have been adjusted to a written warning with an informative handout for a first offense and a citation with a fine of up to $100 for each subsequent offense.

These are welcome changes, but they still miss the point: The panhandlers are unlikely to pay (or be able to pay) the fines, which means the brunt of the punishment will fall not on those soliciting donations, but on those trying to help. With the new changes, panhandlers may not be thrown in jail, but people still can and will be penalized for their generosity.

There have been and will continue to be debates about whether giving panhandlers money or other supplies is helping or enabling. But it seems wrong-headed to castigate people for acting with compassion.

Maybe fining the givers will reduce supply and therefore reduce demand. However, we don’t think it will reduce the demand for donations — it will only change the location of where those demands are made. If they can’t be in the median, panhandlers are likely to move to the shoulders and grassy areas along the roads. But since the ordinance covers road shoulders and rights-of-way, panhandlers will have to move to the sidewalks (which do not appear to be covered) and may even spill into parking lots.

Overall, we don’t think the commission’s “safety ordinance” will work the way commissioners intend, and it seems likely the ordinance will be challenged in court. While we understand the solution isn’t to do nothing, we don’t think this plan is right, either.

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