When you fall on hard times, it's always tempting to look for someone other than yourself - your financial adviser, your banker, the brother-in-law who told you to put all your money in GM stock - to blame the fall on. Now that Bend's downtown is hurting, the search for scapegoats is on. The latest candidate: panhandlers.
The Bend City Council has asked City Attorney Mary Winters to look into legal ways that the city can deal with the perceived panhandling problem. This came in response to a complaint from a local merchant who thought people standing out on the sidewalk asking for money could be hurting business.
Some councilors agreed with her, including Tom Greene, who was quoted as saying, "I've had a lot of people say it makes them uncomfortable to go downtown."
Skeptical as we always are of any claim that begins with "I've heard a lot of people say," we can believe that some people might be made uncomfortable by the presence of a panhandler. But we don't believe panhandlers are numerous enough or aggressive enough to be making an appreciable difference in downtown foot traffic.
And we don't believe they're a "problem" that the government of Bend - which presently is standing on the edge of the financial abyss with one foot on a banana peel - should be wasting time, energy and money on.
The attempt to address the panhandler "problem" is the latest in a series of efforts by the city to sanitize Bend - or at least the downtown part of it, which seems to be the only business district that councilors worry about. (Panhandlers have been plying their trade unmolested on the north, east and south sides for years.)
Early this month the council passed an ordinance making it a Class B misdemeanor to ride a skateboard downtown; perpetrators of this heinous crime can be fined $250 plus court costs. Before that, local merchants and city officials worked themselves into a sweat over the insidious menace of graffiti.
It's time for city councilors and local businesspersons to face the unpleasant truth: If downtown shops and restaurants are running in the red, it isn't because of graffiti or skateboards or guys on the street with cardboard signs - it's because the economy sucks, and passing city ordinances won't do anything to change that.
Councilors and business leaders might also pause to consider that if you aggressively promote growth, you're going to get the unpleasant aspects - including panhandlers - that go with it. You can't have a city of 80,000 and expect it to look and feel like a quaint little village of 20,000. The legal experts say it will be tough, if not impossible, to write an anti-panhandling ordinance that would hold up in court. Such ordinances in Portland, Springfield and Medford have all been struck down on constitutional grounds.
Trying to craft an acceptable law - much less defending it against the inevitable legal challenge that would ensue - just isn't worth the time, money and effort. The council should tell City Attorney Winters to forget about it and give this idea THE BOOT.