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Twp. looks to regulate solicitors

July 16, 2014 - "Attorney Ferrari."

That was the new unofficial title Oxford Township Treasurer Joe Ferrari received from Supervisor Bill Dunn at last week's board of trustees meeting.

Ferrari was directed to draft new potential ordinance language concerning door-to-door solicitors and submit it to township attorney Gary Rentrop for review.

There's concern that the current ordinance could be deemed unconstitutional.

Enacted in 1978, it prohibits "peddlers, hawkers, or vendors of goods, wares or merchandise" and "services for a fee" from setting foot on residential property without an invitation or request from the owner or occupant. The only exception is charitable solicitations.

The issue of the ordinance's constitutionality was raised by Oliver L. Herthneck, an attorney based in Rocky River, Ohio, in a June 3 letter to the township. His office serves as general counsel for independent distributors of a line of cleaning systems sold across the country.

In the letter, Herthneck cites a litany of case law that basically states that door-to-door sales "is deemed commercial speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution" and the township's ordinance is "illegal."

In light of this, Rentrop advised officials to amend the ordinance to include a registration and licensing process for solicitors in order "to avoid a court challenge, which could be (made) on (the constitutional) ground of infringement of free speech rights, giving rise to a claim for attorney fees."

"The township's peddler ordinance is out of date," he wrote in a June 13 e-mail to township officials. "Ordinance(s) such as the township's have been subject to court challenges."

One of the distributors Herthneck represents is based in Ann Arbor. Sales representatives of this distributor recently visited Ferrari's home and he called their office to inform them that door-to-door solicitations are prohibited by township ordinance.

Ferrari did this because, according to him, the sales representatives consisted of four or five men in a "totally unmarked white van."

Ferrari was suspicious and frightened by their presence in his neighborhood.

"I don't think it's right because you don't know these people from Adam," he told the township board. "These unmarked white vans kind of scare me."

"I had no idea what this vehicle was doing in my neighborhood," Ferrari continued. "And with a 7-year-old son, (the) hair on my neck kind of raised up pretty quick . . .Something like this just scares me to death. I'm talking about that as a dad."

Ferrari was adamantly opposed to changing the ordinance.

"I have no problem with our ordinance as it is," he said. "Let them sue us . . . Our safety in our community precedes their free speech."

"So, Attorney Ferrari, are you going to take this to court for us?" asked Dunn.

"There's some things we've got to stand on principle," Ferrari said. "(The) safety of my residents and our community is a lot more important than some guy that wants to come in from Ann Arbor to sell vacuums door-to-door."

Ultimately, the board disagreed with Ferrari and voted 6-1 to have the treasurer come up potential language for a revised ordinance and have the township attorney review and tweak it as necessary.

In his e-mail to officials, Rentrop explained the township is allowed to regulate peddlers or solicitors.

"The township can still require commercial solicitors to register and obtain a license," he wrote. "The application for a license can be fairly restrictive if the restrictions do not amount to a prohibition against door-to-door solicitation."

Even though he opposes changing the ordinance, Ferrari did have some recommendations as to how to amend it to address his concerns.

His suggestions included:

n Establishing a fee that is "substantial enough to cover any and all township costs" including prosecuting violators.

n A provision that the supervisor or township board can deny a soliciting application "for any or no reason."

n Solicitors must be in a "clearly marked company vehicle."

n Restrictions on the hours during which solicitors can operate.

n If a solicitor sees a "no solicitation" sign on a home or business, they must obey it or risk being cited and/or fined.

n Request copies of state-issued identification and background checks for each solicitor and require them to wear a company badge or other form of identification. Require solicitors to wear clothing that identifies who they represent.

"If you're that confident about what you sell, mark your vehicle, license your people . . . (and) have apparel on so that I know what you're doing," Ferrari said.

"I agree with you, Joe," said Trustee Sue Bellairs. "I don't like those white vans I've seen in the neighborhood."

Ferrari also recommended the township consider purchasing "no solicitation" signs and making them available at the municipal offices to both residents and businesses.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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