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Rotterdam Town Board approves panhandling ordinance amid local migrant concerns

The Rotterdam Town Board in session, August 9, 2023.
Dave Lucas
The Rotterdam Town Board in session, August 9, 2023.

The Rotterdam Town Board has approved a new law addressing panhandling.
Officials say the July 18th arrival of asylum-seekers at the Super8 also brought an uptick in panhandling: people living near the motel complained migrants were ringing their doorbells asking for money, even peering into their windows if they didn't answer the door. The Rotterdam town board took up the issue Wednesday.

Heldeberg Avenue resident Melvin Mintz spoke during the public comment period at Wednesday night's meeting.

"I have also noticed in my travels around the area in the last couple of months, this increase of panhandling in the Capital Region, and they've been where they're not supposed to come up to the car window or door at all, and they've been approaching some of them in the cars ahead," Mintz said. "And every so often people are giving them money, which is increasing. They keep coming. So I'm encouraging you to definitely pass this. And I would like to ask you as a political people to talk to the rest of the county on this issue. And to take a serious look at creating a countywide ordinance."

Town Attorney Courtney Heinel pointed out that panhandling on public ground has typically been protected under the 1st Amendment.

"That's why you do see panhandlers out all over the place. You'll see them in Albany, you'll see them here, in Colonie, doesn't matter where you go," Heinel said. "You'll see them because it is considered and has been found by the New York by the Supreme Court that it is a First Amendment right. What this law is is what several other municipalities have enacted, which is called an 'aggressive panhandling law.' It's not targeted at any specific groups for what it's designed to do is designed to protect people from panhandling that puts you in fear of your safety."

The board voted 4 to 1 in favor of the law.

Samantha Miller-Herrera, the lone Democrat on the panel, cast the dissenting vote:

"I'm going to vote no, I'm not ready to take on the cost of litigating a panhandling law. Obviously, when we talk about it, hasn't been vetted against other municipalities' laws, those laws were vetted and used because they weren't litigated. They were brought in court. There was a 1983 action. It required that the municipality spend huge amounts of money on ongoing civil rights litigation in federal court," said Miller-Herrera.

Conservative Town Supervisor Mollie Collins voted "yes." "There's a difference between standing on the street corner where you can easily pass someone who might be panhandling and someone who is on your front porch, looking in your windows and ringing the bell," Collins said. "Now, in this day and age, we do have a lot of children, sometimes as young as 10 years old, who are home alone during the day. That can be very frightening for a child. We also have seniors sometimes who are living alone. And again, there's a big difference between somebody coming to your house ringing once, possibly twice and leaving, and someone who is continually ringing the bell and are looking in your window. And so that's why I vote yes. Four yes, one no. Resolution passes."

The law is effective immediately upon filing with the New York Secretary of State. A measure to curb aggressive panhandling failed in Saratoga Springs last year.

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