PARKERSBURG - The West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city of Parkersburg seeking records about citations to individuals or organizations for soliciting funds without a permit.
The request stems from citations issued to panhandlers standing at intersections with handmade signs asking for help from passing motorists.
The city received the request Nov. 2 from Sarah Rogers, staff attorney for the ACLU of West Virginia, and Parkersburg attorney Walt Auvil.
"My understanding is the city has some kind of ordinance," Auvil said. "Under some rule or regulation they started giving these people tickets."
The city is supposed to have a board that oversees the permits, Auvil said. The FOIA requests the names of all members of the Board of Supervisors of Public Solicitation, which the city does not have.
Mayor Bob Newell said the ACLU is questioning the city's ordinance, which has been on the books since 1957.
The city can cite the solicitors if they don't have a permit. According to the ordinance, there is supposed to be a board of solicitors.
"And we don't have that," Newell said. "That's the angle they are looking at."
Newell said there hasn't been such a board to his knowledge.
"That's not an excuse," he said.
Permit requests are often handled by the city clerk or the finance department, Newell said.
Auvil referred additional questions to Rogers, who described the letter as just a routine investigation.
"I cannot talk about that," she said, asking not to be quoted. "It was just an inquiry and not something I want to commit to any position at this time. We send out FOIAs to get information."
Tickets have been issued to panhandlers; however, it is a futile effort, Newell said. They don't pay the fines and the city's only other recourse is to notify the Division of Motor Vehicles, but these people don't drive, he said.
Rather than issue citations, officials have asked passers-by to stop giving money to the panhandlers and instead give it to service providers.
"If they want to give money they need to give to the organizations that help people, provide meals and clothing. The money is much better spent giving it to them than the ones standing on the corner,' Newell said. "There are plenty of services - an overwhelming number of services for the homeless in this city - and people need to realize the money being collected (by panhandlers) is for drugs and alcohol."