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Morgantown repeals panhandling ordinance

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Morgantown repeals panhandling ordinance

May 22, 2024 | 2:11 pm ET
By Lori Kersey
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Morgantown repeals panhandling ordinance
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The Morgantown City Council on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, repealed a 2005 panhandling ordinance. (Morgantown City Council livestream screenshot)

The city of Morgantown has repealed a panhandling ordinance that made it the target of a lawsuit filed last month by a legal advocacy organization.

Morgantown City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to repeal the 2005 ordinance that prohibits the solicitation of people traveling in vehicles on public rights-of-way.

Mountain State Justice filed the lawsuit against the city in federal court last month on behalf of Anthony Rowand, an unemployed Monongalia County resident who relies on panhandling to cover his basic needs and those of his girlfriend, according to the lawsuit. It argues that panhandling and soliciting of charitable donations constitute speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The complaint says that last summer Rowand began receiving tickets and fines under the ordinance as city police “began more rigorous enforcement.” The man has continued to solicit donations, and has been repeatedly ticketed, racking up fines he is unable to pay, the complaint says.

During an earlier meeting, Morgantown city attorney Ryan Simonton acknowledged that by specifically addressing solicitation for money or goods, the law violates the First Amendment to the Constitution.

According to the lawsuit, while the law had been on the books since 2005, the city “began more rigorous enforcement” last summer.

Councilman Brian Butcher, who also helps lead a Morgantown homeless services provider, said the law should have been repealed a long time ago. The ordinance had not been enforced until recently, Butcher said.

“It’s definitely more pressing now that we’re … engaged in a lawsuit over the enforcement of that ordinance,” Butcher said. “So, [it’s] good for multiple reasons to repeal it. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also obviously illegal, so getting it off the books was the best thing for the city.”

In October, Monongalia County passed an ordinance that limits interaction between vehicle occupants and people standing on roadways and prohibits standing or sitting on roadways in certain situations. Critics say that law unconstitutionally targets people experiencing homelessness asking for money.

During the meeting, Councilwoman Danielle Trumble said the city and other local municipalities should come together with the county to address a “social service crisis.” Bartlett Housing Solutions, a Morgantown emergency shelter, is reportedly set to close this summer.

Councilman Bill Kawecki said the city is concerned about the homeless and “looking into what possibilities there are.”

“It’s being discussed and being worked on,” he said. “Nothing ready for prime time at the moment, but I assure you that there are numbers of people on this council that are very interested in seeing a resolution that will be positive. And I have every confidence that there will be something appropriate, although unfortunately I believe these solutions are helpful, but it doesn’t make the problem go away.”

A representative of Mountain State Justice did not immediately return an email seeking comment.