Clearing a path
Study session leads council members back to sit/lie ordinance
Chico’s city leaders decided to revisit the so-called civil-sidewalks ordinance—one of the most controversial proposals they have considered in discussions on curbing transiency and crime—at the City Council’s next regular meeting on the first Tuesday of November.
That was one of the main results of a special study session Tuesday evening (Oct. 22) at the Council chambers, a meeting during which the hundreds of citizens in attendance insisted that the public—and especially businesspeople—needed the council to take quick and decisive action to put an end to issues plaguing the city, and downtown in particular. Loitering, trespassing, aggressive panhandling and camping were among the problems they say are blighting the area and driving away potential visitors.
“The message is loud and clear,” said Mayor Scott Gruendl near the conclusion of the meeting. Much earlier, he had implied that work on solutions could continue into March. “As winter bears down, we have an opportunity to focus on … everyone’s input, and having it in place and operative before spring comes.”
Minutes earlier, Gruendl and five of his council colleagues (Councilwoman Ann Schwab recused herself because the meeting focused on downtown and she co-owns a business in the area) listened as members of the community, as well as some members of the city staff, read off the priorities that the public had come up with to curb crime and transiency. The ideas surfaced during exercises that divided the nearly 300 people present into six groups tasked with creating lists of what services the city should provide and how enforcement should be handled.
Initial answers from citizens ranged from costly requests such as bringing back the Chico Police Department’s TARGET team and placing infrared lights at all four corners of City Plaza, to prohibiting the distribution of food to the homeless at the plaza and outlawing shopping carts in downtown.
When distilled, the top priority among the five groups focused on enforcement was to fund the Police Department at a full staffing level. Next, a majority of the groups said the city needed to begin enforcing existing ordinances, laws such as the one prohibiting camping in public places and another on loitering. The civil-sidewalks ordinance (or “sit/lie” law) was another popular choice. The top priorities among those focused on services included the city establishing a daytime resource center, setting up a housing camp, and improving outreach and education.
After hearing from the groups’ leaders, Councilman Sean Morgan wasted no time in throwing out a motion that the city attorney draft another civil-sidewalks law to deal with the transients who regularly sit and lie in pedestrian paths of travel. Many of the council members sounded receptive to the idea after hashing out concerns that led to the panel nixing the idea back in August.
Councilwoman Mary Goloff, for example, explained that she’d voted against the first version of the proposed ordinance because she believed it didn’t “have teeth.” Councilman Randall Stone was concerned that Chico Police officers would be pulled away from their duties to deal with court proceedings resulting from citations issued to lawbreakers.
Councilwoman Tami Ritter—who, along with Goloff, Stone and Gruendl, voted down the ordinance when it first came before the panel—urged caution on the law. She pointed out, as many citizens had, that the city wasn’t using laws already on the books.
“What would the community look like if we were enforcing the no-camping ordinance, if we were enforcing the loitering ordinance, and if we were prosecuting for nuisance?” she asked. “Let’s give it a try.”
Ritter also sought information regarding the vagrancy on off-sidewalk areas, including the grassy regions in front of the City Council chambers and at City Plaza, where transients congregate and, in some cases, set up encampments. She learned that the civil-sidewalks ordinance would not be applicable to those areas.
District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the concern about officers going to court assumes those cited would challenge a citation. He said that would be difficult to do and urged the council to pass the ordinance.
“What you need to understand is that right now, if [Police Chief Kirk Trostle] or any of his officers went out, and there was someone lying on the sidewalk, they can do absolutely nothing about that,” he said. “If what you’re interested in is clearing your sidewalks, you need to give your police the tools to move people along.”
His answer for the grassy areas: “Sprinklers.”