Kicked out

Chico mayor clears council chambers after sit/lie ordinance protest

A packed house attends the City Council meeting that included discussion of reinstatement of the sit/lie ordinance.

A packed house attends the City Council meeting that included discussion of reinstatement of the sit/lie ordinance.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

“We demand an immediate end to criminalizing poverty! We demand housing for all!”

A group of people shouted those demands—and others—inside the Chico City Council chambers during Tuesday night’s meeting (Sept. 4), after it appeared that the panel’s conservative majority was moving toward reinstating the controversial sit/lie ordinance.

What ensued at the dais was hard to hear. A frustrated Mayor Sean Morgan, who’d already called for three separate recesses due to clapping and whooping interruptions that evening, pounded the gavel and police officers escorted all attendees, aside from a few members of the media, out of the chambers.

It was an unprecedented sight for City Clerk Debbie Presson, who’s been with the city for nearly 20 years.

What followed was a lengthy discussion about not only sit-lie, but also incivility from the gallery as well as the dais, as council members made accusations of politicking and traded insults. (At one point, Mark Sorensen called fellow Councilman Karl Ory a “big schoolyard bully.”)

“We need to be able to treat each other in a manner that is respectful, so that we can be examples for the community,” Councilwoman Ann Schwab reminded.

Morgan replied, “Well, it’s too late for that.”

Three hours into the meeting, and after more than 40 speakers from the public, the choice to direct the city attorney to draft a new sit/lie ordinance fell predictably along party lines: 4-3, with Councilmembers Schwab, Ory and Randall Stone dissenting.

The one-page staff report on sit/lie, signed by Police Chief Mike O’Brien, explains that during the time the city’s ordinance was in effect—Dec. 19, 2013, to Jan. 1, 2016—56 citations were given to 39 people, and 247 verbal warnings were given to 221 people.

From Chico Police Deputy Chief Matt Madden’s perspective, reinstating it would grant police “legal authority” to detain and investigate individuals when necessary for sitting and lying on public sidewalks, curbs and streets in commercial districts for extended periods between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Council and citizen proponents of the ordinance argued that it would be a useful tool for police, and that it does not target homeless people but rather transients and vagrants.

“We’re talking about uncivil, rude behavior, much like the behavior that led to the council being cleared earlier,” Sorensen said. “These are people demanding respect when they show absolutely no respect for anybody else? No.”

Schwab said she chose not to support reinstatement of the sit/lie ordinance because it would “criminalize something people are doing because they have no other option, no other place to go.” Her comments echoed many members of the public who’d spoken in opposition to the ordinance.

“We all want to have fewer people on the street. We all know it is cheaper to offer services than police protection,” she said. “We need safety of our most vulnerable people. We need to address this problem in the way that will eliminate the need for a sit/lie ordinance.”

Ory and Stone both called the timing of the discussion a political stunt during an election year in which Councilman Andrew Coolidge is the only incumbent running for re-election. Three conservative seats are up for grabs on what’s now a conservative-majority council.

Stone also returned to the criticism he voiced back in 2013, which is that a sit/lie law would drive the problem deeper into neighborhoods. “This is a waste of time,” he said. “It’s nothing more than political shenanigans.”

Coolidge, who originally proposed the discussion, defended himself by stating that his motivations were derived from a concern surrounding public safety and that time was paramount for the issue.

However, the discussion comes at a time when sit/lie laws are being examined in federal court. That same day, in fact, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made a ruling regarding laws of this nature: Certain conduct cannot be criminalized if it is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless, it declared.

City Attorney Vince Ewing will consider that ruling as he drafts an ordinance. Any law that has an enforcement mechanism in place when there are no beds available and folks are told they cannot sit/lie/camp on sidewalks could “run afoul,” he said.

Also at the meeting:

• The council directed staff to bring back funding options to make the Chico PD’s Street Crimes Unit permanent. It currently operates during the summer while Chico State students are away. Estimates for a three-officer unit were quoted at $690,000 per year, while a seven-officer team was quoted at $1.3 million.

• Ordinance 2490, which would have allowed Chico Scrap Metal to remain on East 20th Street, was repealed during its final reading.

• A six-month progress report on Butte County Behavioral Health’s partnership with Chico PD that formed a Mobile Crisis Team garnered criticism from attendees for being vague, though it received positive comments from department heads, who reported 194 responses to individuals in crisis since April.

• The council nixed proposed changes to the building code that would require energy retrofitting on any remodels of more than 50 percent of a home or apartment.