Whitehall will hang on to an ordinance enacted in 2009 that bans panhandling in the city, although the city is not enforcing it, City Attorney Michael Bivens said last week.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has asked 69 Ohio municipalities to repeal their bans on panhandling, including several Columbus suburbs, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

The ACLU's urging reportedly came in a letter that was nationally coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Eric Tars, the center's senior attorney, said in a written statement that until basic needs such as food, health care and housing are met, homeless people have the right to ask for help, according to The Dispatch.

Central Ohio cities targeted by the ACLU in addition to Whitehall are Bexley, Grove City, Westerville, Worthington, Chillicothe, Circleville, Heath, Lancaster, Newark and West Jefferson.

Messages ThisWeek left at an answering service for reporters at the Columbus office of the ACLU were not returned.

Bivens said he was not aware of any correspondence Whitehall received from the ACLU concerning panhandling, but added the city had not enforced its ordinance since a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

That decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert (Arizona), clarified when municipalities may impose content-based restrictions on signs, Bivens said.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision stemmed from a case involving a church that placed signs announcing the time and place for services. Regulations limited the size, number and location of the signs.

In a 9-0 decision, the court ruled that tougher regulations for signs directing people to a meeting of a nonprofit group than for signs with other messages could not withstand constitutional scrutiny.

That was applied to panhandling laws, where lawyers argued that cities couldn't stop people from asking for money on a street corner while allowing others to talk about other subjects on the same corner.

As a result of the ruling, Bivens said he asked Whitehall not to enforce its ordinance.

"I advised (City Council) that the signs panhandlers have are protected in a similar manner," based on the Supreme Court's view of content-based discrimination, Bivens said.

While other Ohio cities have repealed legislation banning panhandling, Bivens said he did not recommend the ordinance be repealed.

"I think we need to have something" to enforce in the event any different circumstances warrant it, Bivens said.

Whitehall's 2009 ordinance defines "aggressively beg" as having the "intent to intimidate another person into giving money," defines the obstruction of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and defines public places, automated-teller machines and bus stop areas.

Violations of pedestrian or vehicular interference is a fourth-degree misdemeanor; subsequent violations are a third-degree misdemeanor.

Violations of aggressive panhandling is a second-degree misdemeanor; subsequent violations are a first-degree misdemeanor.

Columbus City Council pursued new legislation after residents of downtown, the Short North, the South Side and Franklinton told officials that panhandlers were becoming more aggressive since the city stopped enforcing its panhandling ordinance June 1, 2017.

In June, Columbus City Council passed legislation aimed at discouraging panhandling by treating it as a safety issue, rather than a free-speech issue, which lawyers have used to successfully challenge ordinances in other cities, according to The Dispatch.

Columbus' regulations prohibit panhandling transactions in the middle of the street or on freeway ramps; bar panhandlers from touching people or following someone who has told them no; and prohibit people from approaching someone using an ATM. Panhandlers also must remain 3 feet away. Violators can be charged with varying degrees of misdemeanors.

Whitehall also has removed signs it posted discouraging the public from interacting with panhandlers.

The signs said "Keep the Change," and encouraged people to give to charity rather than panhandlers.

The signs' wording, including the sentence, "The majority of your change goes to Drugs & Alcohol," spurred national attention in 2015.

"Those signs have been taken down or are being taken down," Zach Woodruff, public safety director, said Sept. 4.

The signs were removed, Woodruff said, due to a combination of the Supreme Court decision and a reduction in the number of public complaints associated with panhandling activity in the city.

"We are in the process of replacing most of the signs in our city, such as speed-limit signs and others, and chose not to replace (the anti-panhandling) signs," Woodruff said.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo