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Bill sparks discussion on begging; Hearing scheduled over proposed limits for panhandlers; 'Dialogue before a vote'; Merchants recall aggressive attempts to obtain money


A plan to control West Street panhandlers who have been known to chase people down for donations has caught the attention of the Annapolis Human Relations Commission.

The commission, an advisory board to the city council, has scheduled a public hearing on the proposed ordinance at 7 p.m. today in the offices of the Maryland Higher Education Commission at 16 Francis St.

Introduced by Alderman Louise Hammond, the proposed ordinance would prohibit the "coercion and intimidation of people while they are walking or driving within a public right of way."

"The Commission has no position yet on this ordinance, but we believe it requires a great deal of debate and dialogue before a vote is taken," said Michael J. Keller, chairman of the commission, in a prepared statement.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union has said anti-panhandling laws generally face tough challenges in the court.

But Hammond, a Ward 1 Democrat, said yesterday that the proposed law wasn't aimed at panhandlers in general. "It's clear that the people have a right to ask someone for 50 cents. But this is about when it goes beyond that to harassing people," she said.

She said the proposal has received overwhelming support -- especially from business owners along West Street who have been complaining about aggressive beggars frightening customers.

Brian Cahalan, owner of the 49 West Coffeehouse, Winebar and Gallery, said yesterday that some panhandlers have followed customers inside, hounding them for money.

"It happens every winter. But this winter is the worst I've ever seen it," Cahalan said.

Hammond said she's heard similar complaints from other business owners and residents who live nearby. "I've heard from families who felt they couldn't walk downtown. People have been in some pretty scary situations," she said.

Some of the most vocal supporters of the proposal weren't aware that the Human Relations Commission had planned a public forum until yesterday. "They must have decided on their own to review the bill," Hammond said.

The proposed ordinance is also on the agenda for the city council's public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday.

The Human Relations Commission members, who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, will report their findings to the council.

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