Final vote postponed on repeal of downtown Pensacola panhandling law

A controversial ordinance banning panhandling throughout much of downtown Pensacola remains on the books after city council members voted Thursday to postpone a second and final vote on repealing the law.

The ordinance — which council members narrowly approved in May — makes it illegal for anyone to ask for a donation, either verbally or by holding up a sign, within a roughly 40-block section of the city’s downtown. While aimed at panhandlers, the ban also impacts street performers and charitable organizations like the Salvation Army.

The law drew an almost immediate legal challenge from the ACLU of Florida, which filed a federal lawsuit just days after the ordinance was approved, arguing that the ordinance is unconstitutional and infringes on free speech rights. City officials later agreed not to enforce the law until the lawsuit was resolved.

Council members voted in June to repeal the ordinance after Councilman Larry B. Johnson changed his position on the legislation. Since ordinances must be approved or repealed on two separate votes, a second and final vote was scheduled for Thursday night’s July council meeting. However, Johnson said he had additional questions about the status of the ACLU lawsuit and moved to postpone a vote for 60 days.

City Attorney Lysia Bowling said she couldn’t answer questions about the lawsuit in a public meeting, but offered to speak to council members in private or to schedule an executive session — also called an “out of the sunshine” meeting — with the council. State law allows public bodies to meet behind closed doors to discuss pending litigation.

Johnson’s motion to postpone the final repeal vote passed 4-2, with council members Gerald Wingate and P.C. Wu dissenting.