Chardon Square shop owners asked last week what rights they have after City Council rescinded an ordinance on begging on the public square in December.
Owners of Antiques on the Square, The Nest and Beans Coffee Shop and Bistro approached City Council’s economic development committee for a discussion on First Amendment rights in public spaces, noting that those who are soliciting donations on Chardon Square can hurt their businesses.
“The people of Chardon need to have a thick skin with what people do in a public space,” City Law Director Benjamin Chojnacki told the business owners.
Although the city had an ordinance against begging for 10 years, council was forced to rescind the law in December after a Claridon Township man sued the city in federal court over his arrest, claiming the city violated his First Amendment rights. In addition to paying out $5,000 to Jonathan Workman, council rescinded the ordinance banning begging to settle the case. Charges against Mr. Workman were dismissed.
Mr. Chojnacki promised the business owners that he was working to strengthen the city’s ordinances, but said there are lines he can’t cross, which means begging and playing musical instruments will likely continue to be allowed.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s the city’s position,” Mr. Chojnacki said.
But, Mr. Chojnacki’s words appeared to offer little comfort for the business owners, who noted the man continues to display vulgar words on poster boards in clear site of their customers and children across the park attending Park Elementary School.
Mr. Chojnacki added that Mr. Workman, who brought the suit against the city, was counseled by the American Civil Liberties Union and that his signs and playing instruments is viewed as “expressive conduct.”
Pat Martin, owner of Antiques of the Square, said she owns more than 3 feet of land before the public right of way begins, giving her a little more of a buffer from those begging. But, she said, it doesn’t stop the “really bad music” or wearing a mask that appears to frighten some customers.
“We have no rights,” Mrs. Martin said. “I’ve seen customers literally turn away because they don’t want to go past him. There has to be something for us.”
Sylvia McGee, owner of Beans Coffee Shop and Bistro, asked Mr. Chojnacki if the beggar could come inside her establishment to play his music.
Mr. Chojnacki asked if Mrs. McGee allowed others to play instruments in her restaurant. When she replied in the negative, Mr. Chojnacki said no one can do something on your property that they are not invited to do, and all have to abide by the rules established for all.
The business owners asked what kind of behavior would be considered illegal.
Mr. Chojnacki said there has to be some kind of threat to a person’s life, body or property, but that crimes are limited.
“It’s a hollow pang, but that’s the truth,” Mr. Chojnacki said.
He said the courts have now leaned toward allowing people to sleep in public places and are trending toward others to have less rights in these matters.
Councilwoman Nancy McArthur asked why nothing can be done if the person is harming another person’s business.
Mr. Chojnacki said the business owners can file a civil suit, claiming tortious interference, but would have to show that the person is intentionally harming the business.
Former Chardon Mayor Phil King asked whether nuisance ordinances could be applied in these cases.
Mr. Chojnacki said a charge of nuisance must be predicated on a criminal act, and begging is not a sufficient predicate for bringing a nuisance charge.
Councilwoman Heather Hudson Means noted that business owners have been left with “semi-unsatisfactory” answers on what can be done to protect their businesses.
Mr. Chojnacki said he is working toward “beefing up” city ordinances, recognizing that the current situation continues to make life difficult for business owners.