City Hall

Look Out, Belo: Amidst Solicitation Ordinance Chat, Talk of Fines Over Unwanted Papers

At this morning's Quality of Life Committee meeting, we finally got to hear about that proposed new home solicitation ordinance with which we wrapped last week. We know what you're thinking, and let us reassure you right away: Your Girl Scout cookies should be unaffected. Exhale.

As City Attorney Tom Perkins told the council, the new ordinance would apply to anybody selling things, offering services or handing out commercial handbills door-to-door. Home solicitors would be required to register with the city, made to pay a (yet-to-be-determined) non-refundable fee, and given a certificate of registration, good for one year, within 30 days of the application. Registered home solicitors would also have to wear a city-issued I.D badge.

Current anti-litter regulations that prohibit leaving handbills at vacant houses would also be better enforced (how novel), and new provisions would be added that state the person who's named on the handbill would be presumed responsible for any violations that occurred, in addition to the person handing it out. The fine for violating any of this could run up to $500.

Perkins assured the city council members you wouldn't be able to get a certificate if you provided false information on the form, or had been convicted of homicide, kidnapping, or, per the docs, "specified sexual offenses, specified assaults, robbery, burglary, or theft, or fraud committed while soliciting." At least five years have to have elapsed from the date of the conviction or release from prison for a felony, and two years for a misdemeanor. And while the City Attorney's Office wants everyone who registers to have to undergo some type of background check, it would have to be confined to public records only; the Police Department can't do their own, more extensive check.

But all this applies to commercial solicitations only, with exemptions, as we told you previously, for " educational, charitable, religious, or political solicitations; solicitations conducted at the invitation of the property owner or occupant; and newspaper sales requested by the property owner or occupant." Anybody selling cookies or wearing celestial underwear could continue as before.

"So we're not going to take every Girl Scout's picture and do a background check on all the little girls?" Angela Hunt asked dryly.

The question, of course, is how much all this will cost. Perkins told the council members that the city "can't charge more than it costs" to run the new program, adding, "There are First Amendment issues associated with this."

"I'm in favor of this," council member Dwaine Caraway said. "But I want us to walk extremely carefully from a legal perspective." Specifically, he had questions about the background check requirement. "I think that's a little extensive," he said. He was concerned it would handicap people who had been convicted of a crime, but were now trying to make an honest living. "They can't come down and get a job with the city of Dallas," he said.

But the real question the council members had was basically, hey, but what about all those damned free newspapers that clutter up the yard?

"They just leave 'em there all over the community," Caraway said.

"They're a problem in every neighborhood," council member Sandy Greyson added. "They pile up on the curb and show you're not at home." That, Perkins assured her, is where the amended anti-litter ordinance comes in.

"Lots of residents in my district complain about free newspapers in my district also," Hunt said. She wanted to know: Would it actually become illegal to dump them under the new amendments? "Would the newspaper company be held in violation?"

"Yes," Perkins said. "They would be subject to a fine and possible prosecution."

"Would it be a fine per newspaper?" Hunt asked. "Because I can tell you, if it's just $500, Belo won't care."

The full council will be briefed on the proposed amendments -- and be given their own chance to complain about free newspapers -- sometime very soon.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan