This was posted late yesterday afternoon, and then moved up.

The city council’s Public Safety and Education Committee held its first meeting yesterday on a bill that would allow police to fine violators $50 for aggressive solicitation. (Here's background on the bill and the latest version .pdf). The bill, sponsored by council member Tim Burgess, has been the source of much disagreement: drawing huge support from downtown business interests who say economic vitality is at stake, and pushback from civil liberties advocates who say civility laws are unnecessary when we already have aggressive begging laws on the books. The committee met in the city council chambers, where opponents narrowly outnumbered supporters in a lengthy period for public testimony.

These were some of the themes:

One: Advocates were largely unified in arguing that the bill would solve problems that it wouldn’t address at all. They had a legitimate concern of danger downtown and cited many anecdotes. But the overwhelming majority of violent and annoying incidents they described wouldn’t be covered by the ordinance, which allows police to ticket solicitors who repeatedly ask for money from someone who refused, act intimidating when asking for money, or ask for money from a person using (or just after using) an ATM or pay parking station. Their examples were almost exclusively unpleasant panhandling or offenses covered by existing criminal laws, which carry stiffer penalties.

Mitch Evans, a regional manager of Starbucks, testified in favor of the ordinance because, he said, one of his employees “was assaulted going out to a car” and another one was “confronted at knife point,” and often people are “asked to leave a store because they are bothering our customers.”

Thomas Ditty, general manager of the monorail, favors the bill because a person on the monorail platform was “asking each person for change … we asked him to leave and then he left.” In another instance, a man was talking to women in line until monorail staff told him to leave, and then he left “shouting profanities.” Finally, Ditty said, sometimes “the smell of pot” prompts people to tell the cashier about it.

A man who runs a business near Westlake Park complained that a panhandler would “ask for money and then scream obscenities at anybody who would not give him money.” And a woman—who was actually testifying against the bill—noted that when her husband refused to give a man money, “he turned and punched my husband in face.” (The woman added, “How would this bill help my husband?”)

Richard Nordstrom, chair of the Belltown Community Council noted that an “intimidating environment is created when someone is physically close or verbally loud.”

But the civility bill “is not something that will have addressed any of the complaints you heard about,” Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington, told Burgess and the other committee members about three-quarters of the way through the public-comment period. “The officer called out to Westlake didn’t see the panhandler, so they couldn’t have cited” him. “The woman whose husband was assaulted,” Shaw said, “could have been arrested but not cited for aggressive panhandling.”

The city already has a law criminalizing aggressive begging and assault, punishable by arrest and jail. This bill from Burgess would add a new level of civil penalty for aggressive solicitation. A woman named Bridget, a 16-year resident of Belltown, says there is "no evidence" that "poor people are responsible for increased crime."

More after the jump

Two: People on both sides enthusiastically supported the other four points in the city’s five-point plan to increase safety. More foot patrols, which are slated to begin on April 1, are widely popular with even the most staunch critics of Burgess’s civility law. Also widely popular: sticking with a plan—a plan that has long been in the works—to hire more cops. “Burgess sounds puzzled when all the attention on this one element,” the ACLU’s Shaw said. “That is because this one element is a very divisive, very aggressive proposal.”

Three: There was a lot of discussion about pit bulls and gnats. City Council Member Bruce Harrell noted the problems associated with open-air drug markets, gangs, and violence, and, he said, “While I am generally supportive of what we are trying to do here, I get this vision of us swatting at gnats while there is a pit bull gnawing on our leg.” The theme repeated again and again, right to the last person to speak, Anita Freeman, who said, “I want to be safe as a woman, and I don’t want police to be swatting at gnats while a pit bull is chewing on me. If it is already illegal for someone to be threatening and intimidate me, then we don’t need this. If this is really about unwanted behavior, it should be called the anti-intimidation ordinance. Target intimidation, not soliciting.” Niko Simonson, an advocate for Real Change, said the bill was telling people what they should fear—panhandlers—instead of the “pit bull” gnawing at your knee. "You cant’ associate someone panhandling with someone committing a robbery and assault," she said.

Four: The people who showed up to support this bill were almost homogenously representatives of downtown-area business and resident groups—people who had a financial stake in downtown. Strongly represented: The Downtown Seattle Association, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Pioneer Square, Denny Triangle, and Belltown association representatives, etc.

A represenative quote: “Citizens of Seattle are shareholders of a company and their value is in downtown,” said Richard Stevenson, speaking on behalf of Clise Properties, which owns a swath of northern downtown.

“As long as we have been around, we have been concerned about aggressive panhandling,’ said George Allen, vice president of government relations of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, “and have wanted someone to address this very critical issue.”

In contrast, opponents were across the spectrum of city interests, with a strong emphasis on homeless advocates: downtown residents, other neighborhood residents, homeless people, business owners, advocacy organizations, a senior organization, the ACLU, old folks, young folks, and church folks).

A representative quote: “I am concerned the way the law is written is different than way characterized it. You have written it to get rid of anybody you think is aggressive,” said Flo Beaumon, executive director of Catholic Community Services. “Panhandling is an indication of what is wrong with his society. There are some people who are poor. We need public safety against real threat of violence, but people who are poor and panhandling too close to an ATM or parking station, they are not the threat.”

Support The Stranger

Five: Expect changes to the bill. The Public Safety and Education Committee will be adding several amendments in the coming weeks. It’s unclear what those amendments are, exactly, but they will no doubt attempt to clarify ambiguous language in the bill. “There is one thing I am concerned about,” said City Council Member Sally Bagshaw. She noted members of the ACLU had sent her over 400 emails in the last day, condemning the bill’s ramifications. “I want to make sure we are protecting all of our civil rights. That’s why we have Constitution.”

Bagshaw says she will be introducing amendments to change the ordinance. And Burgess says he plans to add a clause that would require the city to produce an annual report of the measure’s implementation. The Seattle Human rights Commission will discuss the bill on April 1 and maybe take a vote to endorse or oppose it. The council committee will consider voting on the measure on April 7, possibly sending it to the full city council.

Neither Mayor Mike McGinn nor City Attorney Pete Holmes has taken a position on the bill.