Kahn: Ordinances so effective that they’re not sued on

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MICHAEL KAHN

Monday’s meeting of the St Augustine City Commission included a discussion on how to legally justify a tougher panhandling ordinance, presented by Constitutional Law Attorney Michael Kahn of Melbourne, Florida.

During the prior commission meeting Kahn introduced himself to the commission suggesting that he would be available to provide a legal solution to crisis-level complaints by residents, tourism interests, and the city’s downtown businesses. Kahn’s presentation was short on details and long on cataloging his many decades of legal prowess.

Mayor Shaver, and at least initially, Commissioner Leanna Freeman, herself an attorney, suggested that the commission not jump from the pan into the fire until they each had an opportunity to review the substance of the proposed contract. But, the commission room was filled that night with citizens prepared to fight the city manager if he did not direct the police department to step in and remove the growing population of beggars from St George Street.

The commission approved $86,000 from reserves to cover $25,000 in ordinance development costs and to add eight more shelter beds at St. Francis House, expanding the ability of police to resume enforcement of public sleeping prohibitions. If alternatives, other than jail, are not available, police cannot arrest someone simply for sleeping in a public park.

Kahn’s record with the City has not been stellar. Historic City News readers will recall that he was the author of the ordinance to regulate creative artists in the city — a ham-handed effort that twice failed constitutional scrutiny in federal district court; costing the City hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in legal defenses and settlements with injured artists.

But this time, Kahn promised “a record of hundreds of pages, maybe a thousand,” to provide competent substantial evidence supporting the tougher panhandling ordinance he’s writing for the city. A key part of crafting the new ordinance will be building the record of panhandling issues — whether positive, negative, or neither.

To that end, a local facebook group, created and maintained by individual citizens and not controlled by the city, has already begun photo-documenting public areas that are afflicted with vagrant and aggressive panhandling.

“People can document and report any kind of information related to the panhandling issues to help the city understand what’s happening,” Kahn told commissioners.

The new ordinance “will be distance based rather than zone based. It must be fair to everyone – panhandlers, citizens, tourists and businesses,” the attorney explained. Even so, Kahn said the city should expect to be sued simply because the use of distance-based enforcement strategies is still new for panhandling ordinances.


Estimating that challenges to the new ordinance would cost the city $150,000 “through appeal, over a two-year period,” Kahn seemed either naïve or disingenuous when he proclaimed, “My goal is to provide you with ordinances that are so effective that they’re not sued on.”


 

  • Kahn estimated that he can have an ordinance completed by the end of January, with first reading in February and enactment in March.
  • With questions of liability looming large for city police officers who could be found personally responsible for violations of arrestees’ civil rights if the Kahn ordinances flop, the commission discussed, without resolution, whether to increase insurance coverage, authorize city reserves to be used, or, handle those lawsuits against officers on a case-by-case basis.
  • The Visitors and Convention Bureau will be working with city police to develop an education program for visitors on how to treat panhandlers downtown, using $10,000 approved by the Tourist Development Council at their meeting earlier Monday.

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