Merriam mayoral and city council candidates on the issues: Pushback on panhandling ordinance

Merriam panhandling photo

Merriam mayoral and city council candidates weigh in on a controversial city ordinance that limits people from standing in medians at nine busy intersections. Above, a man panhandling in a Merriam median. File photo.

The Post asked readers in August about the issues they wanted to hear candidates running for Merriam mayor and city council seats address. Based on that feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire with the most important issues to Merriam residents.

Each day this week, we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we’re publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

Earlier this year, Merriam received pushback on an ordinance prohibiting people from standing in medians at nine intersections. Critics say this is an attempt to limit panhandling, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas (ACLU) and National Homelessness Law Center sent a four-page letter to the city about the ordinance being unconstitutional. Would you have supported (or did you support) the ordinance? Why or why not?

Below are the answers the Post received from candidates on this issue:

Ward 4

David Neal (incumbent)

I voted “aye” on the ordinance prohibiting people from standing in center medians at nine intersections for extended periods. Since I live three doors from one of the busiest of these nine intersections and pass through it virtually every day, I have first hand experiences that form the rationale of my vote. Since I have personally witnessed a number of dangerous situations resulting from improper use of the medians, My vote was about safety for both the pedestrians camped out on small strips of concrete and for the motorists that sometimes encountered unexpectedly stopped vehicles at green lights. An average of 44,000 vehicles a day travel through the Shawnee Mission Parkway and Antioch intersection, sometimes passing people in the narrow medians mere inches from them at 45 miles per hour (or more).

My opponent in this race seems to be particularly upset by this vote. She wrote me an email in opposition to this ordinance which she believes is an effort to remove panhandlers, stating “…I know that most are arguing that this [median restriction] is a public safety issue and that these intersections are deemed places where accidents with pedestrians are more likely to happen, I vehemently disagree with that. It feels very much like this reasoning is being used to cover up the fact that this issue is making people uncomfortable and they don’t want to believe that our pristine city would have an issue with homeless people…”

My vote had nothing whatsoever to do with any discomfort or embarrassment regarding homeless people in “our pristine city.” Rather it has everything to do with my personal experiences as a motorist in Merriam. On several occasions after being held stationary in my car long after the traffic light at Antioch and Shawnee Mission Parkway had changed to green while someone collected money from the cars ahead of me, I experienced the screech of brakes behind me being locked up as drivers realized — at the last second — that traffic in my lane was not moving despite the green light. This IS in fact a safety issue and it IS appropriate to provide guidance prohibiting using the median for a function that it was not designed for. All four corners of these intersections have sidewalks that are appropriate for any protected First Amendment activities including panhandling.

Staci Chivetta

As a community member I did not support this ordinance. I submitted a public comment at the city council meeting when it was voted on and also urged our current Ward 4 council members to vote against the ordinance. My public comment from the February 8th council meeting was:

“This has been weighing on me for a few weeks since I started seeing public comments about it in the council meeting notes, but I am just so disheartened by the language and “reasoning” to amend Chapter 68. Instead of pushing homeless and jobless people out of our community, we need to be finding ways to help them and get them back on their feet. Shawnee recently amended their city code to allow homeless shelters and warming stations to operate in churches, etc, what can we do to create a neighborly space like that? We are a small community and that’s what I love about Merriam, but it’s not a very small town like idea in my book to push people out because it makes us uncomfortable I know that most are arguing that this is a public safety issue and that these intersections are deemed places where accidents with pedestrians are more likely to happen, I vehemently disagree with that. It feels very much like this reasoning is being used to cover up the fact that this issue is making people uncomfortable and they don’t want to believe that our pristine city would have an issue with homeless people.”
The last few months while out campaigning, I have been able to speak with homeowners that live near the high traffic medians and definitely understand their concerns of safety and causing traffic flow issues. If I would have been sitting on council when this ordinance was voted on – it would have been a tough vote for me, but I would have ultimately listened to my constituents and if they would have thought it was something that should be passed or not.

Mayor

Bob Pape

Yes, I did support this ordinance. It is not unconstitutional. Police Chief Darren McLaughlin conducted a study of accidents throughout the city and identified nine intersections that produced the bulk of our accidents. This ordinance is not about pan handling or depriving anyone of their constitutional rights. It is about the safety of people standing in medians and the people traveling in vehicles. As the retired Merriam Fire Chief, I can speak from experience. We use to do fundraising for Muscular dystrophy with FD boot blocks for many years. We use to stand in these medians ourselves. However, we realized that this was dangerous and saw accidents occurring. We quit doing this many years ago and that was long before people also had the distraction of texting and phone calls while driving. People are still allowed to stand on the sidewalk with signs requesting assistance. It is unfortunate that these individuals are trying to survive on the charity of others. We need to address the underlying issues that promote this activity. This problem is not unique to Merriam and can not be solved by Merriam. We as a Nation need to address solutions.

Angel Lopez III

Did not respond.

Ward 2

Nancy Hammond

There are two sides to the new ordinance prohibiting people from standing in medians panhandling. Traffic gets back up during light changes when people give money. Safety issues when people run out in traffic. The other side is some of these people were hit hard losing everything. We have a great response team here in Merriam now helping assist our police. Metal health is a big issue with some of these people. Are we doing our very best to assist them. I spoke with a lady who had two children that needed food and housing that now had to panhandle for our children. We found housing for that individual. I can’t pass a person in need. There is a great mental health facility in less then 2 miles a way. Understanding some of these people’s life’s is only a phone call away for help.

Amy Rider

When I first moved to the KC area I remember seeing people standing in the medians on Shawnee Mission Pkwy and I thought, “that is super dangerous!” I am always nervous that someone might fall into the street and get injured, or worse. For safety reasons I believe something should be done. The ACLU said there are “constructive alternatives” to this ordinance. I am very interested in exploring any constructive alternatives that anyone has to suggest. Unfortunately I have not found suggestions that would not create other similarly dangerous situations.

The median ordinance that was passed was specific to a handful of the most dangerous medians in Merriam. It does not ban people from standing on the sides of any intersection. For the safety of the individuals who choose to stand in those medians, as well as the safety of the people in vehicles, I would have supported the ordinance If no other solutions were viable.

Read these candidates’ responses to questions about potential federal funding for Turkey Creek, bike and walkability, the future of Merriam Town Center and climate change.