Council begins move toward banning sleeping in bus stops

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home city councilors last week held the first reading of a new ordinance that would prohibit the use of bus shelters for any purpose other than waiting for a bus.

The council considered the proposed ordinance during its regular meeting on Jan. 14.

The Police Department and the director of Linn Shuttle brought the issue to the attention of the City Council in November, said Police Chief Jeff Lynn.

“The concerns center around the intended use of the public transit shelters that are throughout the community. The director wanted to ensure that the citizens that are using the public transit system have access to the transit shelters and benches.”

The whole premise is that the bus shelters are not camping sites, said Ken Bronson, Senior Center and Linn Shuttle director, adding that when individuals are camped in the shelters, other people cannot use them to wait for the bus. He wants the shelters to be safe and usable.

People are sometimes camped out in the shelters for days at a time, Bronson said, and the police tell him they cannot do anything about it under the current ordinances.

The ordinance would be a “tool so our officers can police it,” he said.

Under the proposed ordinance, no one would be allowed to use a shelter for more than two hours in a day. The law would prohibit individuals from lying down on or across the seats or the floor or placing objects on the seats that inhibit the use of the seats or floor.

Anyone violating the ordinance, other city ordinances or state law could be excluded from using the shelters or the area within 20 feet of a shelter for 30 days – 90 days on subsequent offenses. The decision may be appealed, and for those who are dependent, a qualified exclusion may be provided for certain purposes, including travel to and from medical and legal appointments, school, employment, obtaining food and other necessary items or for any critical services.

The council dispensed with a provision in the original proposal to include the area within 20 feet of a bus shelter. City Attorney Robert Snyder told the council that might be unconstitutional based on court cases in the 1970s that found unconstitutional laws against loitering.

In some cases, legitimate bus riders might need to wait longer than one hour, said Mayor Greg Mahler, and the council agreed that the length of time allowed should be higher than originally proposed.

Councilor Diane Gerson said she has several concerns.

“I’m concerned about our philosophical stance of excluding people from areas of the city,” she said, alluding to other ordinances similar to one allowing people to be excluded from the downtown area, which she supported later in the council meeting.

Gerson isn’t sure the city has exhausted all of its options, she said. “I just can’t deal with all of this exclusion. I recognize there’s a problem. I’m just not sure this is the way I want to deal with the problem.”

Councilor Lisa Gourley said that, although she opposed the downtown exclusion ordinance, she wants people to be able to use the bus shelters for their intended purpose.

“I do see this as completely separate from the exclusion zone,” she said.

“If people didn’t want to be excluded, maybe they should follow the rules,” suggested Councilor Cortney Nash. “I’ve got to follow the rules. Why can’t they?”

“I think the fear is targeting because they are less desirable to look at,” Gourley said. “You don’t want to put people at a greater disadvantage than they already are. We do have people being excluded because they can’t access the transit shelter.”

Councilor Susan Coleman agreed with Gourley, that bus riders are being excluded because others are using the shelters for other purposes.

Although bus routes do not run after 10 p.m., Gourley noted that the ordinance still prohibits their use by someone trying to stay dry.

Bronson said he wouldn’t be concerned if they were used between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when bus routes start each day.

“At 6 a.m., they’ll still be sleeping,” said Mayor Greg Mahler.

The council voted 6-1 to move the ordinance to its first reading. Gerson voted no. Nash, Coleman, Gourley, Mahler, James Goble and Dave Trask voted yes.

The council must hold three readings before voting on whether to adopt an ordinance. The second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for the council meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 28 at City Hall, 3225 Main St.