Des Moines Places New Restrictions on Standing at Medians, Panhandling

DES MOINES, Iowa -- New restrictions on panhandling were approved Monday night. This time, Des Moines City Council members say it won't impact free speech.

The threat of a free speech lawsuit convinced Des Moines leaders to scrap a panhandling ordinance last year. Council members approved a new ordinance Monday night and say this time it’s focused on pedestrian safety.

This new ordinance involves 200 intersections in the city of Des Moines where now no one can stand, sit, or stay at the median. That is official after the city council unanimously voted "yes" to this new ordinance.

One of those hundreds of intersections is Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Ingersoll Avenue. It's a popular spot for panhandlers.

"Let's go ahead and see if there's anyone to speak on this item. Again, these are medians regarding pedestrian safety,” Mayor Frank Cownie said at the city council meeting Monday night. “I'm seeing none,” Cownie responded after there were not any citizens there to speak on the item.

It didn’t take long for the city council to vote in this new ordinance. It's an ordinance they say is based merely on safety.

"In the past, the ordinance was written around the way people were behaving and the courts have said you can't regulate free speech,” city council member Chris Coleman said. “So we respect those court's decision. We have dropped that ordinance, but over the last six months, we've seen there are other issues that need our attention."

The new ordinance states that standing, sitting and staying at any intersection where streets have a speed limit of 30 mph or higher and have a median that is smaller than six feet wide, is prohibited.

"I live out by Merle Hay Mall and that section out there, those streets, are where the city had a lot of problems and we've now regulated those intersections to make sure that they are safe,” Coleman said.

One panhandler on a median on Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway would not speak on camera, but he told Channel 13 that in his two years standing on the same median, he’s never seen an accident and feels safe. But the city council says data shows otherwise. According to the Department of Transportation, 50 percent of pedestrians who are struck by a vehicle traveling at 30 mph are killed.

Council members say the ordinance could eventually expand to include other intersections.

"If this problem gravitates to other parts of the city, then we will have to address it there, but we will do it based on data, not based on any kind of speech,” Coleman said.

This ordinance will start being enforced in 17 days. Coleman says the city council and police are working together on this issue.

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