'Exclusion' law stirs debate as councilors take another look

 

October 2, 2019

PEOPLE loiter in the parking lot between the Sweet Home Public Library and the old City Hall Monday, Sept. 30.

A possibiltiy of an "exclusion ordinance" banning troublemakers from the downtown area stirred vigorous discussion Tuesday, Sept. 24, as the City Council took another look at the proposal.

The proposed ordinance, which would be based on similar ordinances in place in other communities, would allow police officers to "exclude" or trespass people who are cited or arrested in the downtown area, called an "enhanced law enforcement area," three times in a five-year period.

The first exclusion would be for 30 days. Additional offenses would lead to 90-day exclusions.

The exclusion area would include 4th Avenue to 22nd Avenue along Main, Long and Nandina streets.

City officials have said it would include a variety of exemptions, such as visiting the residence of a family member, school, work, drug treatment, consulting with an attorney, attending or visiting a church, attending a public meeting, attending court, social services, medical services or to exercise a constitutional right. The ordinance also exempts excluded persons traveling in a vehicle.


The issue sparked comments from the audience and council members at the Sept. 24 meeting, which was the third time it's been discussed by the council.

City Manager Ray Towry emphasized that the ordinance would not simply target the homeless population.

"I'd like to take a second and ask everyone to step back just a little bit," he said, as the discussion began. "There have been a lot of conclusions drawn that this is strictly about crime and the homeless population. It's also about economic development. If we're going to have a viable downtown, people are not going to shop in a place where they don't feel comfortable."

He said the proposed ordinance would be a "tool" to create a more "comfortable" community.

Police Chief Jeff Lynn noted that the idea has been divisive.

"Everybody definitely seems to be split," he said. "I guess that's good. Everybody needs to be involved, to be heard."

He and City Attorney Robert Snyder acknowledged that similar ordinances have been tried in various cities around the state, with varying results.

Lynn said Eugene's, for instance, has been problematic, drawing legal challenges, and Bend is "trying to find the sweet spot, what works."

Snyder said Medford's city prosecutor told him that city's exclusion ordinance survived a Circuit Court challenge as to its constitutionality and has "changed some behaviors" and is "beneficial."

Lynn said an exclusion ordinance would not be an "answer-all, it won't solve all societal problems. But it's a tool."

He acknowledged that such a law could push the homeless and others in the downtown corridor out into surrounding neighborhoods, adding that "sleeping or laying somewhere" are not crimes, in most cases.

"This is a hotly debated topic. That's why it's before you," Lynn told the council.

Council member Susan Coleman noted that she's had experience living elsewhere and visited New York City as a child.

"Sometimes we wouldn't leave the bus we were on because it was not safe," Coleman said. "When they enacted something like this, it created a different atmosphere. I think it's OK to encourage citizens to behave well."

Mayor Greg Mahler observed that the "homeless problem is not just downtown. They're already up in the avenues."

He attributed that to church outreach efforts that provide meals and clothing to the needy.

"I don't see this targeting the homeless," he said of the proposed ordinance.

Resident Vince Adams, who lives on Mountain View Road, said he wasn't opposed to the concept of an exclusion ordinance, but expressed concerns about the "criminal element" being pushed into neighborhoods not in the exclusion zones.

"You're going to push them out of the downtown and you're going to push them into residential."

Adams actually voiced concerns about the exclusion idea earlier in the meeting, during a discussion of misbehavior during Farmers Market (see accompanying story on page 1, 8).

He recalled an earlier exchange, several years ago, in which he said he suggested "running them out of town.

"You said, 'We can't do that because that violates their rights.' That violates my rights, by committing crimes in the City of Sweet Home, where I reside and pay taxes. Not right."

He said that the problems being discussed increased with the reduction in insane asylums.

"The City of Sweet Home, per capita, probably has more crime and problems with druggies than Salem or Eugene. They come here because they can hide in the woods and we don't do nothin' to them when we catch 'em," he added, pounding the podium.


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He said if troublemakers are excluded, "they can't just be excluded from the downtown area because they'll come into residential areas. If you're going to do this, you have to do it for the whole city, not just the downtown."

Mahler said the problem is that legally, the council can't make the exclusion apply to the whole city.

City Attorney Robert Snyder said such an ordinance would not hold up, constitutionally, in court, because judges would likely find that such a law violates the right to freedom of assembly.

Consequently, he said, "most of the exclusions they've had so far have been defined areas."

Adams said he didn't think criminals were exercising their right to assembly.

"So, what's rightful assembly?" he asked, "because if I'm not mistaken, you can assemble peacefully anywhere, key word being 'peaceful.' But when you start taking criminals who are committing crimes, they're not assembling. They're going individually out into area, but you've excluded that individual from the downtown area. So there's no assembly there unless they're doing it in groups. Then you have assembly, in the process of committing a crime. Correct me if I'm wrong."


Snyder said that was the "million dollar question."

"You've got 12, 14, 18 hours of research and then you may not know the right answer until it goes before a judge. Point being is, what you're bumping up against (is), the larger you make it, the less you have to say that doesn't bump up against the constitutional issues. And when you're doing it for the whole town, more than likely no judge is going to allow that."

Later, as the council addressed the exclusion issue, Council member Lisa Gourley said she's read how "crime does go up" in communities surrounding areas covered by an exclusion ordinance, that "people commit crimes elsewhere."

Towry said he hadn't seen those statistics. "If you could share that with us, I would love that information."

He reminded councilors that the staff is "just trying to bring things forward to meet your goals. We're not vested in whether this passes or not."

Towry said violators would have three chances before they could be cited under the ordinance.

Responding to concerns voiced by Gourley regarding whether people with mental issues would be cited, without recourse to help, he said he "highly" doubted whether a Sweet Home police officer would interact three times with a mentally ill person without trying to get help for the individual "on at least one of those occasions.

"That's the caliber of officers we have," Towry said, adding that "we're living in a small town."

Councilor Dave Trask said the list of exemptions gives those cited under the law "a lot of things they can do with permission" and that he supported not extending the ordinance over the entire city.

"To me it's a no-brainer."

Councilor Diane Gerson said she was concerned that downtown business operators would not know who had been cited under the law and who had not.

Lynn responded that that was true, but that if law enforcement had no contact with someone who was violating an exclusion ordinance citation, that would indicate that person was behaving well.

"But if law enforcement does contact them because there's a problem, it gives us extra teeth," he said.

Janet McInerney, one of the organizers of the warming center held last winter at Fir Lawn Lutheran Church, said she realized that "this is not a homeless rule," but expressed concerns about the ordinance impacting those visiting the warming center.


"I would assume that almost every one of our clients would be covered by this," she said. "I'm just trying to make sure they're not in 28-degree weather, that they get a little soup.

"Under the exclusions, would my clients be able to come into the area if they were given a no-go? Can they get to the shelter to spend the night there?"

Trask noted that the exclusions include the right to attend religious services and Towry added that they also include permission to "obtain social, medical or life services."

Resident Bob Dalton said he talked to downtown business owners, church leaders and "the general public" and learned that "none of them knew anything about this ordinance. A lot of them don't take The New Era. A lot of them don't navigate through the city website."

He cited Eugene's experience with its exclusion ordinance, saying that it "represented failure to care for neighbors who are sick, needy, downtrodden, etc."

He said that when the ordinance was in effect, crime in Eugene's downtown core decreased 3 percent, while crime outside the downtown core increased 29 percent.

Dalton noted that he lives outside the proposed downtown exclusion zone "by one street" and expressed concerns that similar things could happen in Sweet Home, noting that his home and car have already been broken into multiple times.

He said the real problem downtown is "urban decay."

"Buildings don't have an open-for-business look," he said, adding that what those potentially liable under the proposed law need are "employment, jobs, affordable housing and health services that stress addiction and mental health" aid.

"To me, I'm not sure the exclusion zone will get you what you want," he said, advising the council to "look at the ordinance and do your homework," and talk to "people who represent Sweet Home, not a targeted sliver."

Mahler said he thinks Neighborhood Watch programs could be a "very viable" way to deal with issues addressed by the exclusion ordinances, noting that Neighborhood Watch is "not very strong in our community."

"There's something to address there, too."

 
 

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