Fresh off her June 1 swearing-in, Mayor Glenda Hood was ready to set the tone for her third term in office. Addressing the City Council from the floor of the council chambers at the June 12 meeting, she announced the city had "image issues" she wanted the council to begin tackling.
Among the complaints brought forth by "business folk" and downtown church congregations was "the solicitation issue," she said. Nightclub employees were handing out unwanted fliers to downtown visitors, who dropped them on the ground, and panhandlers were bothering tourists for spare change.
Then there was the "proliferation" of tattoo shops -- six of them downtown, and 30 throughout the city, somehow holding back Orlando's emergence as the "Class A" city many civic leaders think it should be. At the very least, she said, no upscale restaurants or retail would want to locate downtown with tattoo parlors as their neighbor.
Her solution: Push panhandlers out by imposing a no-solicitation zone that would restrict beggars and leafleters to demarcated areas outside of downtown. Furthermore, she wanted to stop the spread of tattoo shops by imposing a six-month moratorium on their approval, during which the city could study whether the shops were concentrated too closely together or had "negative health effects" on residents.
This week a unanimous City Council agreed, giving tentative approval to both measures. (Neither would take effect until after a second vote, scheduled for Monday, July 17.)
Civil libertarians accused the city of taking easy target practice. "Panhandlers aren't taxpayers, and they aren't voters," says Alan Lunin, chairman of the Central Florida chapter of the ACLU. Indeed, the first council member to vote against this kind of measure, he says, would risked being ousted at the next election. "It `would` be an issue, and they'd probably lose," he says.
Still, he conceded, there's legal precedent for a municipality to limit the number of tattoo parlors and curtail the free-speech activities of poor people.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld decisions to place zones around abortion clinics so patients won't be hassled. And cities already create zones that direct placement of strip clubs and liquor stores. In addition, the courts could prove to be the city's ally, should a challenge be brought forth; the federal judicial system in Central Florida, as well as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that governs Florida and three other Southern states, is notoriously conservative. "It's not like the 9th Circuit Court in California," Lunin says. "That left-wing court wouldn't stand for this crap."
But Howard Marks, a Winter Park civil-rights attorney, says the city still could have a tough time defending its eventual position. The Supreme Court, he says, has taken a negative view of restricting "content-based" speech such as regulating no-solicitation zones. The problem, he says, is that "the government starts differentiating between the content of people's speech." For example, "It's OK to be on the street for religious or political reasons -- they don't worry about that." But not if you're only asking for money.
Marks is concerned that people appear to be overlooking the council's harsh treatment of human rights. Being faced with panhandlers, he says, "is the price we pay for being in a country that has a First Amendment. ... It's the price we pay for living in a democracy."
"I promise we'll look at `the issues`," Lunin says. "The question is whether we'll take action."
The constitutionality of the measures was barely mentioned in the council chambers. District 6 Commissioner Ernest Page came the closest when he said: "I agree with the efforts to clean up downtown. I just want some clarification here. Now, to what extent is this `tattoo-parlor proliferation` a problem downtown? How many of these business establishments do we have? I see we have some businessmen here. Would somebody address exactly how we are viewing them as affecting the public safety?"
Council members failed to address the rights of businesses to operate even when confronted by a number of tattoo artists at the council's Monday meeting who wanted to know why council members felt they were at liberty to infringe upon the artists.
Those artists didn't understand or agree with the city's position -- not even when they were assured the moratorium would guarantee less competition for clients. Perhaps that's because they'd already encountered an anti-tattoo atmosphere at City Hall. "I find them personally in bad taste," District 5 Commissioner Daisy Lynum said at a council meeting last month. "You can't even go `downtown` and get a beer without walking into all the little kids with their bodies all covered with what I call self-injurious behaviors."
Denise Sage, part owner of Inkredible Ink, told the council during its most recent debate: "What this is about is the right to free enterprise. I like tattoos. You do not, and that's your right. Just don't let your personal opinion impugn on what the right to free enterprise stands for -- that we, as Americans, are allowed to own a business."
Council members responded that the city's position wasn't personal. The council was trying to bring the city's "nighttime vitality to daytime hours," said newly elected Commissioner Vicki Vargo.
After the vote against them, artists felt patronized. "We presented our side only because we were allowed to," said Lance Norris, owner of Art Attack, another tattoo shop. The council had already decided the direction it wanted to take, he said.
Debate over the no-solicitation zone, which city attorney Scott Gabrielson said appears to be unprecedented in America, was even more one-sided. No council member was willing to placate speakers opposed to the zone. That's because there weren't any.
Most of the debate centered on where the exceptions to the zones -- the 3-feet by 15-feet areas where people would legally be allowed to beg or distribute fliers -- might be located. Residents and downtown businesses didn't want any exceptions to the ban; at least one speaker referred to the homeless as an "infestation of transients."
In corralling them, however, the city did offer panhandlers small consolation; the photo ID permits they currently are required to wear would be eliminated if the new zones are put into place.