DOVER — While City Council discussed creating a committee to determine the legality and advantages of an “anti-dawdling” ordinance last week, the decision was ultimately tabled.
The topic may come up next during January’s Safety, Advisory and Transportation Committee meeting.
“As we have all found, the dawdling ordinance has been one that has come up against opposition,” Councilman Ralph Taylor said Nov. 23.
Councilmen Taylor and David Anderson originally introduced creating a new rule in Dover’s code against dawdling Oct. 26. As proposed, the ordinance would make it unlawful for anyone to linger, play music, stand around or distribute substances in public parking lots between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
It would also be unlawful for anyone to stand or sit on any street or sidewalk in a way that obstructs others from using it.
The proposal would create a fee for offenders of no less than $50 and no more than $150. The fine would double if not paid within 14 days of being issued.
In prior meetings, Councilman Taylor noted that the ordinance is meant to curb crime without creating records. Currently, those arrested for loitering have that arrest put on their files. Those found in violation of the new rule would have to pay a fee — with no arrest.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware has spoken out against the proposal because it says anti-loitering laws are often used to exclude visibly poor and unhoused people from public places.
After Councilman Taylor pitched the idea of creating a committee last week, Councilwoman Tricia Arndt suggested waiting until council receives a legal opinion on the ordinance as it is currently written.
“Before we come together with a committee to evaluate how it should be implemented or how best implemented, we should take a step back and see if it can be implemented legally,” she said.
Councilman Taylor agreed, saying he had not seen a legal opinion yet. However, Council President Roy Sudler said he and Councilman Andre Boggerty had spoken with the city solicitor, who recommended checking with ACLU on the legality of the ordinance as proposed, in conjunction with seeking input from the community.
Councilman Taylor then asked if the committee could recess for 10 minutes to look at the solicitor’s legal opinion. The committee opted against recessing, after Councilman Sudler questioned if that would be a Freedom of Information Act violation.
Councilman Fred Neil said that, in his opinion, the city needs to tackle two issues: the legality of the ordinance as proposed — he suggested contacting ACLU and NAACP — and then “undemonizing” it. He said the ordinance is meant to help businesses in the downtown area gain more patrons by applying a monetary punishment to those who behave poorly in that area.
“The city of Dover is hurting by what’s happening in the downtown area,” he said. “Businesses are drying up. People don’t want to come down. This is what we hear.”
Noting that he is looking forward to serving on a committee about the ordinance, Councilman Boggerty spoke against rushing it.
“There are enough rules and laws on loitering,” he said. “Things are on the books, and if it hasn’t stopped certain situations now, a new law, a new ordinance is not going to stop it.”
He said there is more nuance to the issue of establishments closing downtown — like the availability of parking and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic — than just people loitering.
“(It’s) as if we pass this ordinance, all the sudden, downtown is going to glow,” Councilman Boggerty said.
Councilman Taylor added that the initiative aims to create a sustainable solution that allows businesses to succeed without infringing on the rights of disenfranchised people.
Acknowledging the controversy, he said having a mixture of opinions of people who are for or against it is a good thing.
“That’s what we need,” he said. “If two people in business always agree, then one of them is not necessary.”