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Mich. towns ban groups from soliciting on street

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

A local nonprofit is challenging Grosse Pointe Woods officials who denied the group’s permit for an annual fundraiser and cited a state attorney general ruling that says collecting money on street corners is illegal.

Knights of Columbus members say they are now in jeopardy of losing the group’s biggest money maker, the Tootsie Roll Drive, which has raised more than $25,000 for special needs children in the past five years. It was set to be held in April at the corner of Mack and Vernier.

“It’ll be very difficult to recreate that same scenario with involving the community at-large and attracting a lot of different small donors,” said Dennis Janowski, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus in Grosse Pointe Woods. “Our choices are few.”

The Knights of Columbus is among several groups across the state being blocked by towns that are choosing to enforce Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s opinion released last summer.

In the ruling, Schuette said street fundraisers violate the Uniform Traffic Code, which prohibits people from standing in a roadway to solicit a ride, employment or business from the occupant of any vehicle.

The opinion is drawing criticism from groups, including firefighters, that raise millions of dollars for nonprofits that seek to fight diseases such as autism and muscular dystrophy.

Local and state officials have also called the fundraisers unsafe, saying they distract drivers and put volunteers collecting money at risk.

Lansing firefighter Dennis Rodeman was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 2015 while collecting money for Fill the Boot, an annual fundraising campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association sponsored by the International Association of Firefighters. Grant Taylor, who was charged in the murder, told authorities he was angry with firefighters and intentionally struck Rodeman.

Thousands of firefighters across the country collect donations for Fill the Boot on street corners every year.

Verdine Day, treasurer for the Detroit Firefighters Association, said she disagrees with the state attorney’s opinion and that firefighters in Detroit will continue to host the Fill The Boot event. The fundraiser is usually held in August.

Detroit fire officials follow safe procedures while out collecting donations and most motorists are eager to slow down and drop cash in the boot, Day said.

“This is the only way we can raise the amount of money that we raise because we can’t go door to door,” Day said. “We’ve never had any problems before. And I just don’t understand it.”

Janowski went before the council earlier this month to ask officials to reconsider the permit. The council made a final vote Monday night to deny Janowski's permit to host the Tootsie Roll Drive.

Janowski said he doesn’t believe the fundraiser violates the law because volunteers stand on the corner to collect money and only enter the street when the traffic light is red.

“It’s very important that when conducting solicitations on the corner that drivers aren’t distracted and you’re not running in between cars,” Janowski said. “We are not interested in doing anything that’s dangerous.”

If the fundraiser gets denied a second time, Janowski said he will only be able to raise funds at the group’s affiliated church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, or other partner churches.

Grosse Pointe Woods Mayor Robert Novitke said he asked the city attorney to review the city’s decision to ban the Knights of Columbus fundraiser and research whether other towns are enforcing Schuette’s order.

“There’s no issue with this being a great organization,” Novitke said. “But I don’t think anybody could say there aren’t safety concerns that you’re always going to have.”

Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, said Fill The Boot has been banned in a few Michigan towns since Schuette released his opinion.

“That’s his opinion, it’s not a rule of law,” Docherty said. “We think this only serves to harm the charities that are utilizing this method.”

In Schuette’s ruling, he cited the Village of Sebewaing in Huron County, which passed an ordinance banning street soliciting last August.

Village president Alexander Khoury said officials believed allowing those fundraisers to continue violated state laws.

Many local groups complained about the ban, Khoury said, but the village did not want to risk a lawsuit if someone got hurt.

“My job is to protect the village and the citizens,” Khoury said.

“When something happens, lawsuits start to arise... and the village can’t take that on.”

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Twitter: @NicquelTerry