December 17, 2013

Spokane City Council expands downtown sit-lie law

Mike Prager
The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokane City Council voted 4-3 to toughen an ordinance that makes it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks in the downtown area during business hours.

The Monday vote fell along a familiar political line with council members Nancy McLaughlin, Mike Fagan, Mike Allen and Steve Salvatori casting yes votes.

Council President Ben Stuckart was joined by council members Amber Waldref and Jon Snyder in voting no.

The controversial measure drew nearly two hours of testimony from about three dozen citizens.

The revised law makes it illegal to sit on planters or other sidewalk fixtures, including the group of structures next to Old City Hall and the Olive Garden restaurant.

The change makes sitting on sidewalks illegal from 6 a.m. to midnight. The current law covers the period from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Officers are given discretion in enforcement and are encouraged to refer people subject to enforcement to shelters or other social programs. The law could not be enforced when shelters are full.

Those in favor of the law said it will help police get control of intimidation and threats toward innocent citizens coming into contact with people hanging out downtown.

Opponents said the law will criminalize homelessness. They urged using other measures such as jail diversion, shelters and treatment to curb the problem.

Stuckart said 20 other cities in the U.S. have adopted the so-called sit-and-lie ordinances, but a recent study by University of California researchers found no evidence they work.

He criticized proponents for using anecdotal evidence of threats or intimidation of customers, visitors and workers in arguing for the law.

“To me, good policy is based on evidence,” he said.

Waldref lost a motion to postpone a vote until newly emerging efforts are given a chance to work. Those include new police patrols downtown, additional diversion programs, housing availability and community services for disadvantaged residents.

“We don’t have those comprehensive approaches in place tonight,” Waldref said.

Fagan responded, “You can’t divert everybody. You still have to have consequences; the consequence is jail.”

The misdemeanor crime carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

McLaughlin said she is concerned by what she sees as “rebellious behavior” by people hanging out on downtown sidewalks. “That kind of behavior will not be tolerated on our streets,” she said.

Monday was McLaughlin’s final City Council meeting after serving a city maximum of two four-year terms in the same position.

During testimony, Joan Medina, who works with the downtown homeless, said, “It is clear that a war has been declared on these people.”

Gary Pollard, chair of the Riverside Neighborhood Council, said, “There is an element that is a public nuisance.”

The area where the ordinance will be in effect is bounded on the north by Spokane Falls Boulevard and Riverside Avenue, on the east by Division Street, on the south by the south side of Interstate 90 and on the west by Maple Street.