Incumbent Augusta City Council at-large candidate Courtney Gary-Allen. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — In a split vote, city councilors rejected a controversial proposal to ban unreasonable, aggressive solicitation that was proposed in response to residents and merchants who said they feel increasingly unsafe in the city due in part to being approached by aggressive panhandlers.

Councilors on Thursday voted 5-3 to shoot down the proposed ordinance that would have banned unreasonable solicitation of money or other items of value. The vote followed extensive debate and additional input from downtown merchants and city residents asking for action to make the city safer.

The definition of unreasonable solicitation included: Blocking or impeding the passage of the person being solicited; following the person being solicited, after having been declined, by proceeding behind, ahead or alongside of them; threatening with physical harm by word or gesture; or touching those being solicited without their consent.

Councilors voting against the ordinance said they heard the concerns of merchants and residents about unacceptable and disturbing behavior making people feel unsafe but the ordinance would not really address those concerns, would duplicate existing, more-effective state criminal law, and potentially get the city sued for violating constitutionally-protected free speech rights. They said what the city really needs to become safer is a larger presence of police and mental health or social workers.

“I understand businesses saying this behavior is unacceptable, because it is unacceptable,” said At-Large Councilor Courtney Gary-Allen, who said her own son was recently approached by a panhandler in an inappropriate way that scared him. “But I’m also concerned about the impact of this ordinance, and that it’s not actually going to solve the problems that are before us. We already have criminal laws on the books, that are harsher, that can and should be enforced against the very select people that are participating in this behavior. We’ve sent a pretty clear message to our police chief we want to enforce those rules that are on the books. This ordinance is almost just a (public relations) stunt at this point, it’s not actually going to help you guys. Instead, I’d like to put stuff in the budget to address the problems you’re raising.”

She said the city should consider, as the city of Sanford has done, creating a unit within the Police Department partnering officers with a social worker who could respond with them and provide people in crisis or in need of help access to services they need.


Mayor Mark O’Brien, who only votes on such proposals when there is a tie to be broken, nonetheless spoke in favor of passing the ordinance. He said the ordinance would not violate free speech because it sought to regulate menacing and intimidating behavior, not speech, and not the act of panhandling itself.

Augusta Mayor Mark O’Brien. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

“Aggressive solicitation creates fear and intimidation and results in the loss of enjoyment of public spaces,” O’Brien said. “The solution is not to outlaw panhandling, and that’s not what we’re doing with this ordinance. The focus must be on the threatening and menacing behavior, which is precisely the focus of this ordinance. I humbly disagree with my fellow councilors, this is not just a (public relations) stunt, not just a piece of paper. It’s a tool. And it’s trying to build some accountability for behavior that we’ve witnessed in this community.”

Steve Dumas, partner in Otto’s On the River restaurant and Capitol Furnishings & Home Accessories, both downtown, said the furnishings store is closed and will likely remain so because of aggressive beggars harassing customers there.

“Most of our customers are females, and they’re approached by two or three people every time they come in,” Dumas said. “They come up to our customers two, three, four at a time and ask for money. One young guy, who is all over town, he’ll back away from men but he’ll say the most vile things to women that turn him down. He knows nothing is going to happen. I know you want to do something, but I know you’re not going to. So what are we going to do? We lost a business and the other is being affected by it.”

Resident Jennifer Green said the problems with aggressive solicitation aren’t just downtown. While alongside her car recently in the parking lot at a Hannaford supermarket she was talking on her phone to her husband and turned to find a man immediately up close to her and in her face, trying to solicit her. She said he was so close it was upsetting and she felt threatened, even though he didn’t say anything threatening to her. She said she sat in her vehicle and watched for 20 minutes as the man, and another man, did the same thing to other shoppers in the parking lot.

“Something needs to be done to give police the tools to try to stop this,” Green said. “I don’t feel safe in my environment, and I grew up in these neighborhoods. It’s time to take back our city.”

Councilors Eric Lind, Mike Michaud and Kevin Judkins voted for the ordinance, while Gary-Allen and councilors William Savage, Eric Austin, Abigail St. Valle and Stephanie Sienkiewicz voted against it.

While several merchants, as well as city councilors, said the city needs a larger police presence downtown, police Chief Kevin Lully has said the Police Department does not have the staffing to do more patrols downtown than it is doing now. Lully said despite the city’s advertising constantly for new officers over the past three years, the department still has six vacancies it cannot fill due to a lack of qualified applicants. He said additional downtown shifts can only be filled if officers volunteer to work overtime.

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