Of Politicians, Panhandlers and Willie

Just two days after he proposed the idea, Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding quietly dropped his proposal to tax panhandlers and require them to wear signs stating how much the city contributes to social service agencies on an annual basis. Despite the sudden flip-flop, Berding's idea has inspired a similar concept targeting City Hall.—-

Jason Haap and Justin Jeffre, bloggers who operate The Cincinnati Beacon Web site, want a new law that would require all City Council members to wear a city-issued name badge whenever conducting public business.  The badge would include their names, the amount they raised during their campaign, and how much that equals per vote.

"Voters deserve to be reminded that we live in the best democracy money can buy," Jeffre said. "We deserve to know the difference between the ideas coming from the big-money candidate who raised a quarter of a million for his seat, or from someone with less ties to special interests."

Haap added, "It's hard to remember details of finance reports a few months after an election. This way, the compulsory badges will serve as useful and constant reminders."

Last Tuesday, Berding garnered headlines by proposing a 2.1 percent tax on the money collected by panhandlers, the same levied on people who live or work in the city. Asking for money on the street amounts to commercial activity, Berding alleged, which he believed could legally be taxed. He also wanted to license all panhandlers, and require them to wear a standardized sign about how much the municipal budget allocates for social services. He was supposed to introduce the ordinance at City Council's sole summer meeting, on Aug. 5.

Berding — a Democrat seeking reelection to a third term — made the proposal to deal with what he called aggressive panhandling. It occurred after TV and newspaper reports of homeless people sleeping at the Hamilton County Courthouse overnight, and urinating and defacating on the property.

On Thursday, however, Berding told WLWT-TV that he had second thoughts. The station reported that Berding thought the measure would be unconstitutional "after checking with his attorneys." That seems to contradict what he said on the radio just hours earlier.

Appearing on Bill Cunningham's talk show on WLW (700 AM), Berding said, "The lawyers tell me it's worth looking into."

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio issued a statement Thursday urging City Council to reject Berding's proposal, and promising a lawsuit if it was approved.

"This is a transparent attempt to backdoor restrictions on the free speech rights of the poorest people in Cincinnati. Soliciting donations has time and again been classified as free speech, not as a business,” said Gary Daniels, the Ohio ACLU's associate director. “It is clearly intended to unfairly target only the homeless and not others who may be soliciting donations in Cincinnati.”

Although Berding folded quickly, he was much cockier on Cunningham's show, which is heard by thousands of listeners.

"I'm certainly not interested in collecting a couple of tax dollars from someone, (it's) more of a legal approach to limiting panhandling," he told Cunningham.

The conversation between the pair took an odd path that eventually had Cunningham advocating that panhandlers and homeless people should be subjected to caning, paddling and being locked in stockades — all done publicly.

"Beat the hell out of these individuals until they spruce up," said the talk show host, a lawyer and millionaire who lives on a Sycamore Township estate. "A lot of these people aren't even from Cincinnati."

Cunningham: "Make their ass beet-red and they'll get moving."

Berding: "I think you're really getting a good discussion going there, Bill."

Cunningham: "Jeff, most people think like me."

Berding: "... I can't imagine the reaction if an elected official proposed what you suggested."

Cunningham: "Get back to work, Jeff. You're normal."

At that point, the low-brow laugh fest ended.

It's unclear if Haap and Jeffre might consider amending their proposal to include public canings of City Council members.

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