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Originally published Friday, April 23, 2010 at 2:30 PM

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Seattle mayor vetoes aggressive panhandling bill

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn vetoed the City Council's bill on aggressive panhandling Friday afternoon — and entered into a broader debate over police hiring and public safety.

Seattle Times staff reporter

It felt like a victory rally.

A crowd of more than 100 stood and cheered for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn after he vetoed the City Council's panhandling legislation Friday afternoon. Speakers praised each other's courageous work in defeating a bill that not too long ago looked certain to pass.

"We share a vision of what our city can be," the mayor said. "On those shared values, now is the time for us to start working together."

But even as McGinn celebrated a political win, he was headed into a broader debate over whether his veto — and a recent decision to delay the hiring of 20 police officers — showed a lack of urgency and practicality in dealing with public safety.

People on both sides of the panhandling bill said they had hoped to use this moment to come together and make downtown safer, but it was clear a deep divide exists over how best to do that.

The measure proposed by City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former police officer, would bar certain intimidating behaviors, such as blocking a person or using intimidating words or gestures while asking for something. Punishment would be a $50 fine or community service.

The City Council passed the ban on aggressive panhandling 5-4 Monday. The council apparently lacks the six yes votes needed to override McGinn's veto.

Proponents, including downtown business groups, Seattle's interim police chief and some advocates for the homeless, argued the legislation would help public safety and businesses downtown.

Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), campaigned to kill the bill. They said it violated civil liberties and essentially criminalized poverty.

"I do not believe this law would achieve its stated goals, nor do I believe it reflects Seattle's values," McGinn wrote in his veto letter to the council.

McGinn's reasoning

He noted his concerns that the law could be unevenly applied, and that there are already laws in place that prohibit the sort of conduct the law seeks to address. He agreed with concerns about free speech and the access that accused indigents would have to an attorney over a civil infraction. He also said the bill would compel mental-health and drug treatment in ways that circumvented the "normal civil commitment process."

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McGinn's arguments against the bill helped persuade Councilmember Mike O'Brien — an old friend of the mayor's — to make a last-minute switch to a no vote.

Burgess, the bill's sponsor, said he believes misconceptions fueled opposition to it.

Noting the lack of votes for an override, he said in an interview Friday that he'll now focus on funding for more police and social services.

"We clearly have a problem (with street crime)," Burgess said. "I know there are those that disagree and say there isn't a problem, but there is a problem."

20 cops not hired

Although the council split on panhandling, they presented a united front Thursday when all nine council members sent a letter to McGinn attacking a delay in hiring 20 police officers — and for not letting the council know.

McGinn cites severe budget problems as the reason for the delay.

The city's Neighborhood Policing Plan, approved in 2007, advocated foot patrols and a work-shift structure that makes more officers available when and where they are most needed.

To achieve that, the council planned for 20 new police officers per year for five years.

McGinn said he will "accelerate" the policing plan without adding officers.

"The Neighborhood Policing Plan that was adopted by the city a couple years ago is not about number of officers, but objectives," he said.

McGinn said if the city cannot afford more officers, he can still achieve the goals of the plan. He pointed out that police this month shifted some bicycle officers to foot patrol downtown to address public safety there.

Burgess said it is impossible to meet the goals of the Neighborhood Policing Plan without more officers.

The council is committed to protecting public safety and emergency human services, he said, even as it seeks to make millions of dollars worth of budget cuts this year and next.

Council largely absent

Just two of the four council members who voted against the panhandling bill attended the mayor's veto-signing.

Councilmember Nick Licata, who led the opposition effort, said, "A law that was intended to bring more peace to downtown ended up bringing division."

Real Change News Executive Director Tim Harris compared Burgess' bill to treating cancer patients with leeches.

"It seems a bit divisive when you hear what's being said, but we're going to use it" to improve downtown safety, said Jane Rakay Nelson, chairwoman of the Downtown Seattle Association board of trustees.

She was one of the only proponents of the bill present at the veto ceremony and said she is concerned about the mayor's commitment to public-safety efforts downtown overall.

Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the local ACLU branch, on the other hand, said the veto offers "a golden opportunity to work on real solutions to create the downtown we all want."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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