Sit/lie vote sparks another contentious council meeting
When the handcuffs locked into place around Patrick Newman’s wrists Tuesday (Oct. 16), it marked the second time police escorted a person out of the Chico City Council Chambers in six months.
That scene was one of several protests that night. Lately, civil unrest has been growing from a populace divided along ideological lines but united in their discontent with the state of the city.
The meeting began with a discussion on the reinstatement of the sit/lie law, which was in place from Nov. 19, 2013, to Jan. 1, 2016. The vote fell predictably along conservative-liberal lines, with the council deciding to prohibit people from obstructing sidewalks or doorways in commercial districts throughout the city from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Councilmembers Karl Ory, Ann Schwab and Randall Stone were opposed.)
Prior to his arrest, Newman—an advocate for the homeless and founder of Chico Friends on the Street—criticized sit/lie, as well as the conservative-majority council’s approach to homelessness.
“People on the streets are the losers in the housing game. They’re losers for reasons that have to do with disability, mostly,” he said. “Instead of co-exiting in public space, which would be the honorable and humane approach to all this, we are trying to squeeze them out of town.”
Near the end of his speaking limit, he began to read an excerpt from Martin v. City of Boise, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that has come to define the legality of sit/lie laws, acknowledging that he would continue “until this meeting is adjourned or I am removed from this building.”
After a calm exchange between Newman and Mayor Sean Morgan, both choosing not to budge, Morgan called for a five-minute recess and Newman’s removal. He was released outside the chambers because he was being cooperative and was not intoxicated, Police Chief Mike O’Brien later told the CN&R.
Newman’s circumstances contrast with the May removal and arrest of Mark Herrera, who is now suing the city (see Downstroke, this page).
The meeting started out differently than expected—the chambers weren’t overflowing, and there were two police officers situated along the aisles, not six, as there have been for the past several meetings. Morgan commented upon the start of the meeting, “OK, it’s eerily quiet in here.”
It didn’t take long for tensions to escalate. Newman was the 14th of 24 speakers, about half for and half against sit/lie, the first topic of the meeting’s regular agenda.
After Councilman Andrew Coolidge made the motion to approve sit/lie, more than 20 attendees—in the second protest of the night—stood and turned their backs to the council.
Dan Everhart had announced the action during his public comment: “Some of us, in protest of the injustice of this law, when the mayor calls the vote, we’re going to quietly turn our backs on the right wing of the City Council, as they have consistently done to the people in our community who need their help the most.”
Those in support of the law included business owners, Downtown Chico Business Association board President David Halimi and members of the community group Chico First. Teri DuBose, a downtown business owner, said she is trying to make a living and it is “reasonable to expect clear sidewalks and doorways in the downtown area.”
It is not the kind-hearted people who are down-and-out whom she has a hard time asking to relocate, she added, “it is the registered sex offenders, violent criminals and drug addicts that threaten my business and personal safety.”
Ory criticized the move to discuss sit/lie now as a political stunt—Coolidge brought it up and is the only conservative incumbent running for re-election (the ordinance’s second reading will fall on election night).
“What we have is a feel-good proposal, window dressing, weeks before the election, that has the effect of making us more of an us-and-them community,” Ory said. He added that the ordinance “dances around” the Ninth Circuit decision and “just looks and smells” like criminalization, because the $100 fines issued for violations will not be paid.
Coolidge responded by saying that if it were political, he would not have pushed for the shelter crisis declaration as well. He reiterated public statements he has made, that he is looking for “all solutions” to the city’s problems with homelessness.
Councilman Mark Sorensen countered that the purpose of Martin v. City of Boise was “not to relinquish public areas to uncivil behavior.” Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer said “there are two sides to this story” and that the people in favor of the ordinance are “not speaking as loudly” but “speaking in abundance” via calls and emails.
In the last protest of the night, a small group chose to eat food in the chambers during a typical recess. When asked to obey the water-only rule by police and city staff members, the group shot back by calling out council members and a police officer who had eaten in the chambers that night.
Among other actions taken, the council voted unanimously (with Stone recused) to have a discussion about the retroactive taxation of AirBnB owners. (See “Blindsided,” Newslines, Oct. 4.) Also, the council voted to reduce development impact fees for small units.