Last month, Goodlettsville City Commissioner Zach Young cast the lone vote opposing an ordinance that amends the city's existing law regarding solicitation of sales or donations on public streets.
Others on the five-member Board of Commissioners say the ordinance is a response to safety concerns raised by residents of the satellite city that straddles Davidson and Sumner counties. But Young, who was elected last year at the age of 20, told the Scene earlier this month that "this never became an issue until the homeless people came into Goodlettsville and started selling that paper."
He's referring to The Contributor, the twice-monthly street newspaper sold largely by homeless vendors. Last year, the paper produced more than $2 million in income for hundreds of homeless men and women, although its unique business model had it facing financial collapse just months ago. (See "Final Issue?," Aug. 29.) It is one of the largest papers of its kind in the country, and has been hugely successful in Nashville. But the paper's vendors have not always been welcome outside the city limits.
A public hearing will be held at tonight's 6:30 p.m. commission meeting in Goodlettsville, before a final vote on the ordinance which, as currently proposed, would effectively ban Contributor vendors from operating in the city. It's based on a similar ordinance in Brentwood, which was widely seen as a thinly veiled effort to eradicate the homeless from the suburb's tony streets.
The U.S. Court of Appeals recently sided with Brentwood in a case between the city and The Contributor over the ordinance, which had been on the books since the 1970s but was rarely enforced until the paper's vendors arrived. There, as in in Goodlettsville, city officials claim safety as the motivating factor.
Goodlettsville Mayor John Coombs, who sits on the Board of Commissioners and voted for the ordinance on first reading, says the city "had security issues, and dangerous situations occurring" that led officials to revisit the existing law. The new version, he says, would "place more emphasis on the safety aspect" and add "guidance for enforcement agencies."
Title 16, Chapter 1, Section 114 of the Goodlettsville Municipal Code prohibits people from standing "on a highway, roadway, public street, or sidewalk for the purpose of soliciting employment, business or contributions from the occupant of any vehicle." (The code also prohibits taking such action to catch a ride.)
The proposed update is more specific. It would prohibit "selling or attempting to sell any goods, merchandise or other materials or any services" from "any public street, median, alley or sidewalk." It would ban alerting drivers or their passengers, with a sign or a wave, "to any commercial activity." The ordinance states that it does not bar selling newspapers or other publications — "except that such activity shall be prohibited on any portion of any public street within the City" and "such materials shall not be handed to the occupant of any motor vehicle that is on a street, nor shall any action be taken which is intended or reasonably calculated to cause the vehicle occupant to hand anything to the person selling or distributing the materials."
To Nashville drivers accustomed to Contributor vendors, that may sound familiar.
Coombs says he doesn't see the vendors as singled out by the ordinance, and he adds that it would apply to others who take to the streets for various causes, like youth ball teams or the Shriners. (Those groups, it should be pointed out, are not typically living on the streets where they sell their goods.)
Goodlettsville Vice Mayor Jane Birdwell says some local clergy have expressed misgivings about the ordinance. Although she voted for it initially, Birdwell says she's not sure how she'll vote tonight. The public hearing will help her make up her mind, she says.
"I just don't want anyone to put their life in danger," she says. "I don't care whether it's a high school student or another type of vendor, by stepping out in traffic or impeding the flow of traffic. Now, if there's some kind of solution to this, I'm willing to listen to it."
The Contributor's executive director, Tasha French Lemley, says she and the paper's director of vending, Tom Wills, met with Goodlettsville City Manager Tim Ellis to discuss ways to address safety concerns without banning sales. As for whether the paper and its vendors are being singled out, she notes that "all I know is what I heard from [Ellis], that it's not targeted at The Contributor."
In their discussions, though, she says she pointed to a Franklin ordinance as an alternative. That law allows newspapers to be handed through the passenger side of stopped vehicles.
"Many of the safety concerns are already things that we have long prohibited as a policy of The Contributor," she adds. "So that's why we feel that an ordinance that specifically prohibits those types of behaviors, those types of potentially dangerous behaviors, is the way to go and not a flat-out ban on vehicle sales."
Young, who told the Scene earlier this month that he "can't sleep at night with a good conscience knowing that just that one vote would directly affect someone's ability to feed their kids or feed themselves or be able to get off the streets," says he'll ask that the ordinance be deferred. He'd like to propose a work session so that commissioners and representatives from The Contributor can discuss the issue. If his fellow commissioners don't go for that, he says he might offer some amendments.
Before all that, however, will be a chance for the public to speak on the issue. And don't be surprised if that includes a few people from the streets, medians, alleys and sidewalks.