Council approves pedestrian restrictions
ROGERS — Officials on Tuesday repealed the city’s solicitation ordinance and replaced it with one aimed at keeping pedestrians and vehicles separate as a safety issue.
The City Council unanimously approved the ordinance “to regulate dangerous and unnecessary obstructions of traffic” at least in part because of a federal court lawsuit filed recently by the American Civil Liberties Union against Rogers, Fort Smith and Hot Springs seeking to overturn restrictions on panhandling. According to the lawsuit, the cities’ enforcement of antipanhandling ordinances unlawfully restrict the free speech rights of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
The new Rogers ordinance bars anyone from approaching an occupied vehicle if the vehicle is in operation and on a public street, according to Jennifer Waymack, senior staff attorney for the city. The ordinance provides exceptions for persons authorized to do roadwork, utility work or to direct traffic; law enforcement officers acting in their capacity as law enforcement; emergency personnel acting in their capacity as emergency personnel, pedestrians using sidewalks and street crossings or using the road when no sidewalk or trail is available.
“It is an inherently dangerous scenario when pedestrian traffic intermingles with vehicular traffic,” Waymack said.
Mayor Greg Hines said the city has provided a draft of the new ordinance to the ACLU but he couldn’t say if the city’s action would affect the lawsuit. He said the ACLU indicated they wanted an exception in the ordinance to specifically allow for panhandling.
“That’s just not going to happen,” Hines said.
Hines said the city’s ordinance addresses a safety issue and doesn’t impinge on anyone’s right to free speech.
“It’s a traffic ordinance,” he said. “It says nothing
about your message, the clothes you’re wearing or your ultimate goal.”
Hines and Waymack said the ordinance creates a civil violation and Hines said enforcement would be through the issuance of citations. Police Chief Hayes Minor declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit against the city.
Also Tuesday, the council approved increasing the city’s hotel/motel tax from 2 percent to 3 percent.
J.R. Shaw is executive director of Visit Rogers, which does the promotional work for the city under the authority of the Advertising and Promotion Commission. Shaw said Rogers has fallen behind other area cities and regional competitors in its advertising efforts. Several cities in Northwest Arkansas have both a hotel/motel tax and a restaurant tax, which boosts their budgets.
“The key is competition,” Shaw said, saying other cities have hotel/motel taxes ranging from 2 percent to 7 percent and restaurant taxes further increase the disparity.
Hines said the increase would boost the budget for promoting the city from about $850,000 to near $1.2 million. He said the city has been supplementing the advertising budget by about $100,000 a year for the past several years.
Alderman Mark Kruger, who also serves as chairman of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, said the increase will improve Rogers ability to compete with other cities in attracting conventions, sporting events and other visitors.
“We can’t match them dollar for dollar but we can get in the same ballpark,” Kruger said.