MORGANTOWN — There’s nothing left for the Monongalia County Commission to do but vote on the proposed pedestrian and vehicle safety ordinance — formerly known as a countywide panhandling ordinance.
The commission held a second reading and an official public hearing on the ordinance Wednesday.
While it’s not uncommon for the commission to hold a public hearing and vote on a matter in the same meeting, County Administrator Rennetta McClure said the body requested additional time due to the amount of feedback the issue has generated.
McClure said she didn’t know when the issue would be on the commission’s agenda for an up or down vote. However, Commission President Tom Bloom — the petitioner for the proposed ordinance — indicated he would like to work with the sheriff’s office to have it in place by Nov. 1 if ultimately passed.
As previously reported, the ordinance includes a number of prohibitions for both pedestrians within a right-of-way and vehicle passengers that would make it illegal activity for both parties to interact and pass or exchange items.
The ordinance would also prohibit standing, sitting or otherwise remaining within a roadway or median not wider than 10 feet for any reason other than crossing the street, and makes considerations for activity on or near roads based on vehicle speed, traffic volume and lighting conditions, among other factors.
Wednesday actually marked the second public hearing on the matter.
On Aug. 16, Representatives of the ACLU of West Virginia, Mountain State Justice and the League of Women Voters were among those to express concerns about the proposed ordinance, saying it was an unconstitutional law targeting the poor that would land the county in court.
Comments skewed in favor of the proposal this time around with two speakers in support and one against. Emailed correspondence broke five to one in favor of the proposal and included backing from Morgantown City Councilor Louise Michael and Star City Recorder Steve Blinco.
Opponents say it’s meant to target specific individuals and protected speech regardless of whether the word “panhandling” is used.
Bloom disagrees, noting it prohibits anybody from doing anything while standing in the middle of the road.
“The ordinance is very clear. It deals with safety — pedestrian safety and vehicle safety,” he said.
Judy Ball, president of the local chapter of West Virginia League of Women of Voters said the ACLU of West Virginia has made it clear that it opposes all such ordinances, and this one in particular.
“I do not understand why any local government would ignore that. The ACLU comes armed with lawyers and they use them, often to good effect,” Ball said.
Bloom countered that the law being considered is a compromise and that input was solicited from all local governmental bodies and law enforcement agencies, as well as legal counsel.
Further, he said, a less-nuanced version of the ordinance has been on the books in Berkeley County since 2017 and has drawn no attention.
“It has been on the books for over six years. It has been working well. The community has approved it and there has not been a complaint at all by any organization or group because this was a compromise they came up with in the community,” he said. “I believe what we are doing is a compromise to help public safety and the free flow of traffic.”
Ultimately, Ball said she believes the commission has already signaled its intent to put the law on the books.
“As my mother used to say, ‘It’s all over but the shouting,’” Ball said. “And the lawsuits.”
The draft ordinance is available at monongaliacounty.gov by clicking the “county ordinances” link.