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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New law aims to limit garbage, needles left in Spokane parks

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 18, 2020

The Spokane City Council is considering a new law that would explicitly bank needles and other drug paraphernalia in city parks.  (JED CONKLIN)
The Spokane City Council is considering a new law that would explicitly bank needles and other drug paraphernalia in city parks. (JED CONKLIN)

Spokane residents are tired of traipsing through trash and stumbling across discarded needles in their neighborhood parks, and so is City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.

Kinnear has introduced a new law that would explicitly ban drug paraphernalia in city parks and require anyone who holds a major event, but fails to clean up afterward, to pay for it.

The effort is meant to curtail the amount of trash and drug-related detritus ditched in spaces such as Riverfront Park and Coeur d’Alene Park, where nearby residents have complained about the mess.

Neighbors near Liberty Park, Corbin Park and Underhill Park have also lodged complaints.

“Those concerns all centered around needles, drug paraphernalia, trash and large groups with either sound systems or bullhorns,” Kinnear said. “A lot of folks were congregating in parks but not following park rules.”

The proposal was briefed during a meeting of the council’s Urban Experience Committee on Monday.

Kinnear said the ordinance contains three main points. It clarifies park rules, provides tools for enforcement and allows the city to recoup the cost of cleanup after someone holds an event in a city park, and explicitly bans drug paraphernalia.

Although city and state laws regarding parks already prohibit the consumption of liquor and marijuana, they do not mention illegal drugs or paraphernalia, Kinnear noted.

Trash left in Coeur d’Alene Park, combined with the Parks Department’s limited operational capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, has forced Browne’s Addition residents to organize neighborhood cleanup efforts, according to Kinnear.

Her ordinance would require a special event permit for any gathering that “draws a large number of people and has a significant impact on the park and surrounding areas.”

The ordinance’s definition of event is somewhat loose, but factors include “noise, amplification, crowd size, impact on parking, refuse left behind from the distribution of food, consumption of alcohol or other substances, human waste, the presence of drug paraphernalia and illegal activity associated with attendees of the event.”

Essentially, Kinnear said she’s not looking to prevent people from hosting a small family reunion in Comstock Park. But a preplanned, large outdoor church service should obtain an event permit.

That permit, Kinnear argues, would allow the city to hold the organizer accountable for the cleanup. Those who hold a permitted event but fail to clear any leftover mess would be charged for the cost of the city’s cleanup efforts, presumably undertaken by Parks staff.

“It’s not about needles, per se, this is just a very small piece of what this is hoping to do, which is keep trash and noise and activity that’s not suitable for parks out of parks and ensure that the park staff is not overwhelmed, so that people are responsible for cleaning up,” Kinnear said.

Councilwoman Kate Burke voiced concern Monday that the ordinance was a way to harm people who are already hurting and said she could not support a proposal that “criminalizes more of what we’re seeing.”

“We keep going backward on the way that we’re trying to prevent this type of stuff from happening,” Burke said. “We should (take) preventative measures like folks being able to access clean needles, folks being able to go to a place to get services and get on medical services they need.”

Kinnear noted that the proposal does not enact any new punishments for drug-related crimes, it only transposes them into parks code.

The Parks Department launched a pilot program in 2018 to collect needles from containers placed in park bathrooms. But the program did little to limit the impact of discarded needles, according to Parks Director Garrett Jones.

Restrooms were not open this year due to COVID-19, but last year the Parks Department saw needles flushed down toilets that caused the plumbing to back up, he said.

“Our staff would have to go in there, actually remove the toilet and take the needles out of the toilet and reinstall it,” Jones said.

Jones said the department still found needles in playgrounds.

This story was changed on Sept. 18, 2020 to correct information about a pilot program launched by the Parks Department in 2018 related to needles. The program aimed to collect needles in bathroom containers.

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