Council considers crackdown on panhandlers

The Rochester City Council moved a step closer to a crackdown on aggressive panhandlers, despite critics' fears that the proposed ordinance might be unconstitutional.

Council members voted 5-2 in favor of a draft ordinance that would ban panhandlers from "intimidating" behavior such as repeatedly asking for money, following people or touching them. The proposal would also set up panhandling-free zones around "captive audience" areas such as sidewalk cafes or ATMs. In a separate 6-1 vote, council members gave preliminary approval to a similar ban on panhandling on road medians.

But opponents warn that the ban could run afoul of a recent Supreme Court decision that struck down a 35-foot protest buffer zone around abortion clinics. If it's now unconstitutional to stop people from exercising their free speech on the sidewalk in front of a clinic, they warn it may be illegal to do the same for someone asking for spare change next to an ATM.

Both ordinances will be back for further debate before the council in August.

Jennifer Brooks @stribrooks


Accessible Internet for all

Austin is looking to build a $35 million broadband network that would bring ultrafast Internet speeds to every home, building and business within the School District.

A consultant's study released this month found that "there is a reasonable expectation for a fiber business to be successful in the community." A fiber optic network that offers 1 gigabit speeds would boost property values and help businesses compete, according to the study by CCG Consulting.

But much is still up in the air — including who would build the network and how it would be funded.

"I would say we're open to anything," said Laura Helle, a director at Vision 2020, which has volunteer committees working toward a host of goals, including building high-capacity fiber. A public-private partnership, perhaps. Or a co-op.

The group hopes to nab state and federal funding for the project.

Homes and businesses within Austin are "fairly well-served" by current Internet providers, including Charter Communications, Helle said. But a new fiber service would offer faster speeds. It would also deliver service to residents outside the city limits but within the School District — where they have "very few options for data, none of them good," the study said.

Next, Vision 2020 will gauge folks' interest by knocking on doors.

Jenna Ross @ByJenna


Flood damage assessed

State and federal emergency workers are going county by county to tally up the damage from this summer's massive floods.

In Beltrami County, a damage assessment team issued a preliminary finding that the region suffered $174,000 in damage to public infrastructure in June and July.

If the damage is severe enough, the county will qualify for state or federal assistance. Heavy rains pushed the Tamarac River over its banks near Waskish, flooding the Big Bog State Recreation area and nearby roads both in the county and in the neighboring Red Lake Nation.

President Obama declared a federal disaster in eight Minnesota counties — Chippewa, Freeborn, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Renville and Rock — making those counties eligible for federal funding to aid the state and local governments in recovery. That number is expected to rise.

Jennifer Brooks @stribrooks


'Charm' puts city on list

Northfield is No. 2.

The home to both Carleton and St. Olaf colleges has made a new list of top 10 small towns, right behind Los Alamos, N.M. created the list of towns using 41 statistics, including cost of living, crime, air quality and natural amenities.

The ranking praised Northfield's natural beauty, "great schools, an abundance of parks, farmers markets, high community involvement and excellent cultural amenities."

It noted that the city, population 20,340, has a median home price of $154,900.

No other Minnesota city made the list, at

Jenna Ross @ByJenna