In Tuesday’s five-hour meeting of the City Council of Oklahoma City, the Council finally made a decision to appeal their panhandling ordinance’s constitutionality to the Supreme Court.
The City also announced that the Utilities Department will return to the practice of turning off water services to customers in arrears.
Also, a lease agreement for the Cox Convention Center to be used as a film and television production studio was approved.
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The City’s unpopular and, according to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, unconstitutional panhandling ordinance once again came before the City Council on Tuesday. The ordinance, passed in 2015, restricts persons standing or staying in any median where the speed limit is over 35 miles per hour.
The purpose of the ordinance, as originally stated by Councilwoman Meg Salyer, former representative of Ward 6, was to curb panhandling on City medians and rights of way. An unanticipated consequence was to prevent local firefighters from accomplishing their MDA fundraiser “Fill the Boot,” as well as to put a significant barrier to employment for vendors of the popular Curbside Chronicle program of the Homeless Alliance.
While the Council took a step back and tried to sell the ordinance as a public safety effort, even amending the ordinance to allow people on certain medians, a lawsuit was filed against the City. Among those bringing the lawsuit were the ACLU and Legal Aid of Oklahoma.
Most recently the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the ordinance as unconstitutional. Since that decision was entered, the City Council has been discussing the possibility of appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, or else simply accepting the loss and paying court costs and fees. These discussions have happened largely behind the veil of Executive Session.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor David Holt, Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper, Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, and Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice all voted against appealing the decision. Ward 1’s James Greiner, Ward 3’s James McAtee, Todd Stone of Ward 4, David Greenwell of Ward 5, and Ward 8’s Mark Stonecipher each voted for the appeal.
Now the case will go to the Supreme Court, who are statistically not likely to hear the case.
Free Press spoke via text to Dan Straughan, Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance, after the meeting.
“I’m deeply disappointed that despite broad opposition, five Councilmen voted today to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending a failed, unconstitutional, inhumane city ordinance,” Straughan said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the Council heard from Chris Browning, the City’s Utilities Director about customer delinquencies.
The City made the decision in March to stop cutting off water services to delinquent accounts as of March in response to the COVID pandemic.
During his presentation, Browning said that before March the average arrears on a delinquent account was $226. Today that amount is nearly $1,000. Through the Community CARES program for resident assistance, Browning said they’ve been able to help about 700 customers get up to date on their water bills.
That leaves a total delinquency of over $8 million. Browning pointed out that they had budgeted for $9 million in arrears for the year.
In order to get back on track, the City will again begin to notify customers that their water will be turned off with non-payment. Those notices usually take weeks to be sent and confirmed, Browning explained.
Water services will begin being turned off again for customers with delinquent bills in late February.
Browning said that the goal of the Department was to never turn off any customer’s water. When asked about how CARES money could be used for this, it was explained that the money has to go to the consumer to use to pay their bills.
City Manager Craig Freeman backed Browning up on the plan to return to water shutoffs, saying that customers faced with paying electricity, gas, or water bills know that their water won’t get shut off, so they can table that bill while they pay their others.
If a customer owes a back balance on their water bill, they can set up payment plans with the department by calling (405) 297-2833.
One loose end of the last several months was tied up at Tuesday’s meeting, as the City Council approved a lease agreement with Prairie Surf Media for the Cox Convention Center. Prairie Surf Media will convert the large building into a working studio for film and television production.
Councilman David Greenwell voted against the agreement, stating that the City takes all the risk in this lease, and has no benefit in the potential success of the business.
Prairie Surf Media, for their part, only intend to use the space for five years as they build a facility of their own. This will help the City draw revenue from the building, instead of letting it sit idle for the coming years as they try to decide what will be done with the building after the new MAPS 3 Convention Center opens.
The Council meets again on December 22.
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