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Originally published Friday, September 11, 2009 at 2:52 PM

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Proposed rules would make streets feel safer

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess plans to introduce a bill next month setting some new rules for panhandling. From the early discussion, his legislation makes a lot of sense. Panhandling is one thing. Intimidating tourists, residents and business owners is quite another

YOU know the uncomfortable feeling: It's dark and rainy on a downtown Seattle street. Needing cash, you step up to an ATM. A panhandler lurks. Or you are getting into a car when a street tough approaches and puts an arm on yours, seeking money.

Panhandling is part of the urban landscape. But aggressive, threatening panhandling contributes to a sense of street disorder. To that end, City Councilmember Tim Burgess plans to introduce reasonable legislation setting stricter rules for panhandlers.

Courts repeatedly rule that asking for money is a First Amendment right. But communities have been able to regulate the time, place and manner of such conduct.

A beggar standing against a building with hat or hand outstretched is not the immediate issue. Neither is a street performer with a coin cup or vendor of a newspaper produced by homeless individuals.

Yet across the city, some beggars are actually street toughs using the ruse of panhandling to intimidate people.

Under the proposed new rules, no panhandler would be allowed to approach within 25 feet of a cash machine, at street intersections and roadway entrances, or during hours of darkness. Panhandling an individual getting in and out of a car would also be a no-no.

Burgess deserves support for a sensible, public-safety oriented idea; Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels should back him. Additionally, both candidates for mayor, Mike McGinn and Joe Mallahan, should state where they stand on this sensible legislation.

"The point is to set a standard of behavior," explained Burgess. The idea is not to punish the homeless or those living on the streets. The idea is to impose order and safety.

Burgess' legislation is still being formulated. There may be fines and those are appropriate.

Details matter. It is time to draw a finer line between free speech of panhandlers and the rights of passersby who feel increasingly threatened walking down the street.

The legislation will be introduced next month as part of a broader plan to protect neighborhoods, business and individuals.

Public safety is a growing issue. Violent crime in Seattle surged 22 percent the first seven months of 2009 over the previous time frame a year ago. Overall major crime edged up 6 percent.

Visitors to our city feel uncomfortable in certain areas, such as the Pike-Pine Corridor between the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and the Pike Place Market, the market being one of the top tourist spots in the country.

Visitors complain of hostile panhandling, litter, graffiti and open-air drug markets, all cited in letters and e-mails to Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The proposed law is not only about tourists. It's about businesses and citizens who live and work downtown and other neighborhoods.

Burgess' proposal is welcome. Years ago, former City Attorney Mark Sidran pushed for laws banning sitting and lying on public sidewalks in designated business districts during working hours. Enforcement can be difficult because victims often don't wait for police intervention.

Burgess' legislation is part of a necessary effort to make people feel safer on our streets and it provides police a tool to reclaim a sense of order.

Another bill would expand the Metropolitan Improvement District, which covers the downtown core, to Belltown. District employees reduce litter and graffiti and notify police of troubles.

Soon, Seattle will select a new police chief. The mayor and council should seek a candidate who understands a city has to manage smaller details of daily street life along with the larger and more glaring public-safety issues.

The city has a duty to regulate — within the law, within reason — the way in which citizens and business people are treated as they go about their daily lives.

Burgess is onto something.

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