Councilors urged to pass exclusion law

Sean C. Morgan

Members of the public last week urged the City Council to move forward with a plan to create a downtown exclusion zone, an “enhanced law enforcement area,” aimed at keeping repeat lawbreakers out of the area.

The City Council continued its discussion of the issue during its regular meeting on Oct. 8, about whether to pass an ordinance allowing police officers to exclude – or essentially trespass – persons who are repeatedly cited or arrested for various offenses from the downtown area.

Police Chief Jeff Lynn emphasized previous statements and provided additional informational about proposed ordinance in an effort to address some common misconceptions.

“The intent of the enhanced law enforcement area was to attempt to address frustrations over illegal activity that repeatedly occurs in downtown Sweet Home,” Lynn told the council. “This proposed ordinance is not about homelessness, and it’s not about solving the issue of homelessness. It’s about public safety.

“I believe the city has an obligation to maintain a safe environment for its residents. That means enforcing laws against behavior that infringes on the rights of others. Downtown merchants and others have complained that a number of people are engaging in behavior that makes it unpleasant to spend time downtown.”

Leaders of the Sweet Home Farmers Market complained to the council at its Sept. 24 meeting, saying that obnoxious behavior by people hanging out in the square between the library and old City Hall had negatively impacted customer flow during last summer.

People who want to be downtown should obey the law, Lynn said. That goes for the homeless, as well as those who have a place to live.

Lynn listed the 27 offenses that are included in the proposed ordinance. They were drawn from the city’s chronic nuisance property ordinance, which allows the city to suspend the use of a property associated with frequent offenses.

They include murder, sex crimes, disorderly conduct, discharge of weapons, various levels of assault and harassment, unnecessary noise, alcohol offenses, criminal mischief, littering, various levels of theft, prostitution, illegal gambling, curfew violations, controlled substance offenses and arson.

Under the proposal, those who are cited or arrested for these offenses three or more times in a three-year period may be excluded from the downtown area, from 4th Avenue to 22nd Avenue along Main, Long and Nandina streets.

Lynn said the proposal was originally a five-year period, which is long, and he proposed decreasing it to a three-year period.

Those who are excluded may be allowed to enter the area for a variety of purposes, including residence or employment in the area, to visit family, to consult an attorney, to attend drug or alcohol treatment, to pass through, to attend a public meeting, to attend court, to engage in any court-ordered activity, to attend church or use another constitutional right or to obtain social services.

The police chief and Municipal Court are required to grant them access for these exceptions under the proposal.

Lynn also provided three examples of people who would be excluded. He said he expects that no more than eight to 10 people at a time would be excluded from the zone.

One individual has had two criminal trespass and two consumption of alcohol charges so far this year. The second has had two theft and one criminal trespass charges this year, and the third has had one consumption of alcohol and a criminal trespass charge this year and two criminal trespass and one controlled substance offense with methamphetamine last year.

Of the three, Lynn said, one is homeless. Two are not.

If those three were excluded, said Councilor Cortney Nash, “they’re among everyone’s houses.”

He asked whether they could be excluded from the city limits if they trespass outside the downtown area.

“You have to have somewhat a finite exclusion area,” Lynn said.

“The broader you make it, the more you’re poking up against constitutional issues,” said City Attorney Robert Snyder.

“We can’t just kick people out of town,” said City Manager Ray Towry.

If the object is to change the offenders’ behavior, if they move to and start hanging out at Clark Mill Road, it’s not a change in behavior, said Councilor Diane Gerson. “I’m not in favor of this at all.”

Lynn said he understands: “It’s been a polarizing topic.”

Councilor Susan Coleman said she is not yet satisfied with the proposed ordinance.

She said it impacts economic development when people don’t want to be in the downtown area.

Neither was Councilor James Goble. “I don’t feel that we can enforce this,” he said. “How do we enforce this when the individuals really don’t care?”

Mayor Greg Mahler said that he agrees and disagrees with different parts of the proposed ordinance, but the Farmer’s Market is ready to pull out at this point in response to the behavior in the old City Hall parking lot.

Sweet Home is going to lose a lot of downtown business if it doesn’t figure out something soon, Mahler said.

“It’s just a start,” said Councilor Dave Trask. “If it doesn’t fly, we can change whatever we need to change. To sit here and do nothing is unacceptable.”

Mahler agreed that it would be hard to enforce, he said, “but we have to start somewhere.”

“One more fine does not deter them in any way,” Goble said, noting that the councilors supporting the ordinance are applying their own values on people who don’t worry about paying the fines they accrue.

To avoid police, he said, they’ll move to surrounding neighborhoods.

The ordinance targets behavior that typically occurs in the downtown area, like thefts from stores and repeatedly trespassing on business properties.

“If we really want to deter what’s going on, you need police presence,” Gerson said, adding that the city needs an officer on the street talking to businesses. The officers need a period, like one hour a day, where they do not respond to calls and instead walk the street.

“This isn’t a solve-all,” Lynn said.

“This is not a silver bullet,” Towry said. It’s a tool that officers can use, and it can include a sunset clause.

The city can do both, the ordinance and have officers walking, Mahler said. “We have to offer the police every tool possible to solve this problem.”

“You have to find a place that takes care of your community,” said Patrick Rogers, a Sweet Home resident. It needs to be a place where people feel safe and are willing to build businesses.

Kellie Kem, owner of Sweet Home Choppers and a member of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, told the council that she has served on the Sweet Home Economic Development Group Board of Directors as well.

Working with real estate agents, she has learned of a number of people who came to Sweet Home looking to start a business and left, based on the activity they saw downtown.

“We’ve got to get a handle on this,” Kem said. She said she doesn’t like having to cover her grandchildren’s eyes as she drives through town to keep them from seeing someone urinating or people having sex.

“You’ve got to protect your businesses too,” she said. “Think about your businesses and your potential businesses.”

Paula Newman, who owns Figaro’s Pizza and Schmizza Public House in Lebanon, told the council she saw first-hand how criminal activity affected business, ultimately leading to the loss of business because customers felt threatened and unsafe and the closure of the Figaro’s store in Lebanon.

She said an alcohol-related exclusion zone in Lebanon made a difference and deterred alcohol-related crimes. When her family opened Schmizza, the landlord added a security guard to the shopping complex. The combination of city ordinances and the security guard made a difference there.

Lynn told The New Era he is looking at variations of the ordinance. He said there has been some talk of a sunset clause and talk about pre- or post-conviction exclusion.

He said he needs additional input before taking a proposal to councilors for action.

The proposal will return to the council for further discussion at its regular meeting on Oct. 22.

Present at the meeting were councilors Nash, Coleman, Lisa Gourley, Mahler, Gerson, Goble and Trask.