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Bemidji City Council considers aggressive solicitation rules

One man stands at an intersection, silently holding a sign that requests financial assistance. Another man approaches individuals as they walk from a gas station toward their vehicles; he blocks their car doors and repeatedly asks for cash.

The Bemidji City Council believes the two situations are very different. In fact, one could soon be illegal.

The council voted 6-0 in a work session Monday night to direct staff to prepare an ordinance that would prohibit aggressive solicitation. Councilor Barb Meuers was absent.

The ordinance, which still must go through the public hearing and reading process, would not restrict all solicitation, but would prohibit "disturbing and disruptive" solicitation such as approaching or following pedestrians, using abusive or profane language, and blocking of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Violation of the ordinance, if adopted, would be a misdemeanor.

'We're not telling them they can't do it," said Mayor Richard Lehmann. "We're only telling them they have to do it within these guidelines."

City Attorney Al Felix provided copies of other cities' rules addressing solicitation. Bemidji's preferred ordinance is modeled after St. Paul's and Minneapolis' ordinances on aggressive solicitation.

Other cities took a different approach.

Duluth, for instance, has one paragraph that simply prohibits solicitation.

Felix, however, did not state much support for this option as he felt the ordinance left itself open to a legal challenge based on First Amendment rights.

Rochester is considering an ordinance based on Bettendorf, Iowa, regulations. There, solicitors are required to obtain a permit free of charge. When they apply for the permit, they are told of available social services.

The hope is that when the public then sees a solicitor, with a permit on display, residents know they have already been told of help available.

Most of those who would solicit just generally move on, the Rochester attorney reported to Felix.

Lehmann's concern with this method was that the ordinance did not have any "teeth," or consequences for violators.

"I think it's an issue we have to address," he said. "Without any teething, we're wasting everybody's time."

Councilor Kevin Waldhausen said he would like to see a solution that involves a method that would refer those in need to organizations that may be able to help them.

"Otherwise it's an endless cycle," he said. "We have to incorporate something that's going to help break the cycle."

Several councilors noted their experiences with solicitors.

Paul Ericsson, the branch manager of the Bemidji Public Library, also attended the meeting and was asked by Councilor Greg Negard if the library had issues with solicitors.

Ericsson said complaints have been received from library patrons.

"Most are about people who feel intimidated or uncomfortable coming inside," he said, noting that there sometimes have been groups of people outside of the building.

"I've personally experienced it as well," he continued. "I would like to see something fair and enforceable, so I know where I can go for support."

Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson did not attend the work session. However, Felix said the ordinance proposal came from Johnson, who supports its approval.

"There's no easy answer," Felix said. "It's just another arrow in the quiver of trying to deal with the issues in the community."