Columbus looks to solve loitering problem

Published 11:56 am Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Columbus officials say they need a new law that gives the police department the right to ask people “to move along.”

Columbus Town Council met Tuesday, March 22 and discussed recent issues with loitering.

The town currently has no ordinance to regulate loitering.

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Columbus Town Manager Jonathan Kanipe and police chief Chris Beddingfield told council of recent issues with young people hanging out in parking lots at night, a man with a sign that disrupted traffic and another man who sat on a bench in front of businesses for eight to 10 hours at a time.

“Recently the police department has had issues with loitering and other events with people being on public sidewalks and disrupting traffic flow,” Kanipe said. “We have nothing in our code to ask people to move along, for lack of better words.”

Beddingfield said one day a man stood near the roundabout with a sign that said he was upset at a local business regarding his mother-in-law. Columbus officials said they don’t want to prohibit free speech, but when an act causes traffic problems, something needs to be done.

“We have nothing to address that,” said Beddingfield. “It was causing problems because traffic was stopping to read the sign.”

Another recent incident involved two people who were staying at the Days Inn who had an altercation and both were arrested, Beddingfield said. Both went to jail but then had nowhere to go. Beddingfield said the police department gave one person a ride out of town, but the other decided to sit on the bench in front of a downtown restaurant for eight to 10 hours at a time. Beddingfield said he didn’t have the greatest appearance and people didn’t feel safe walking by him. Business owners called the police department to complain.

At night, the police department says it is having problems with young people congregating in parking lots. The teenagers are not doing anything illegal, but it draws crowds and they are leaving black marks from squealing tires, according to Beddingfield.

Another issue mentioned Tuesday was occasional homeless people who camp out on public property.

Council decided for Kanipe, Beddingfield and town attorney Bailey Nager to draft an ordinance for council to discuss further next month.

Council members said they won’t prohibit people’s First Amendment rights, but can designate times and areas to protest, such as the issue with people standing on the street with signs.

“Our only issue was that it was stopping traffic on Mills Street,” said Kanipe in talking about the man with the sign. “If it had been on the courthouse lawn it would have been different. We will not stop anyone’s First Amendment right to speak. It’s much more about the obstruction on the sidewalk.”