Park pretense

Commission passes on closure decision, weighs validity of request

The Bidwell Park and Playground Commission considers closing Chico’s parks earlier.

The Bidwell Park and Playground Commission considers closing Chico’s parks earlier.

CN&R file photo

If anything was made clear Monday night (June 25) at the meeting of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission, it was that closing the city’s parks and greenways earlier and at a uniform time—11 p.m.—is more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

The biggest concern? That the commission was being asked to make a decision targeting the homeless population under the guise of public safety and clearing up confusion. Each of the six members of the public who spoke on the issue indicated they felt the proposal would have the greatest impact on homeless people who sleep in the parks for lack of anywhere else to go.

“All of the places, all of the resources are full—we have 400 people who must sleep outside,” said Sandra O’Neill. “The only place that’s safe is in our parks. We should encourage them to sleep outside instead of behind bushes.

“We should keep our parks open [24/7] until such time as Chico can get enough low-income housing to house the people who need to be housed.”

Richard Muenzer is one of those people.

“It’s about time you saw one of us. I’m one of the dreaded homeless people,” he said by way of introduction. “There are many reasons why we oppose this. Why I personally oppose this: It’s going to drive me in deeper. That’s not what we want; you don’t want to drive us in deeper. I get it—we should be at the Torres Shelter. But the Torres Shelter is full.”

Muenzer, as well as several other speakers, went so far as to say that the City Council was asking the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission to do its dirty work, to address homelessness without formally addressing homelessness, or without providing an alternative solution to the problem.

“I want my parks back. I want them to be cleaner and safer. I don’t want them to be campgrounds,” said Scott Huber, a City Council candidate and nature enthusiast who earlier this year spent a weekend on the streets to better understand the issue and what people are facing. “One way to achieve this: Provide housing. People aren’t sleeping in our parks because they want to mess up the parks. They’re sleeping in the parks because they don’t have dwellings.

“Please don’t be patsies for the City Council,” he continued. “Don’t take the fall for a bitter failure to act.”

Fellow council candidate Rich Ober, a former park commissioner who sits on the board at the Torres Community Shelter, had a similar take.

“I think we all know that changing the closing time for Bidwell Park and other parks will not create an additional bed in the Torres Shelter or elsewhere,” he said. He characterized the park closure issue, as well as the sit/lie ordinance and others, as distractions from the real problem. “Let’s put this energy toward real solutions.”

When it came time for the commissioners to weigh in, it seemed clear that they’d listened.

Commissioner Alberto Hernandez said he’d been at Bidwell Park recently and saw what appeared to be a single mother and her kids sleeping in their car. He suggested paying attention to the city attorney’s upcoming report to the City Council on what declaring a shelter crisis might mean and then discussing whether the parking lots could be kept open for people to sleep in their vehicles.

Elaina McReynolds took issue with Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien’s assertion that closing all the parks at 11—currently most are open till midnight, while City Plaza “closes” at 2 a.m.—will clear up confusion for the public and police officers, or that it will provide much benefit for public safety. Closing one hour earlier “won’t make a dent,” she said.

“Chief O’Brien says it will eliminate confusion, but I don’t see a lot of confusion,” she added. “Put up some signs. If the police are confused, they can make a little laminated card that says the parks are closed at different times. I don’t see that closing all the parks at 11 is a valid way to approach a memory issue.”

With his background in law enforcement, Commissioner Tom Nickell said he understands the usefulness of tools like uniform closing times to eliminate a criminal element. He had approached the proposal with care, however, because he was concerned that it might target one specific group. For that reason, and to avoid discrimination, he made a motion to forward the issue to the commission’s policy committee, requesting that it study each park and greenway individually.

“After looking at the different parks mentioned here, I’ve seen the damage to Bidwell Bowl, and to [Children’s Playground],” he said. “This is where kids play. For those two areas, close them at dusk.” The others, however, based on their unique character, may warrant the current midnight closing time.

Commissioner Jeffrey Glatz, who originally brought up the discussion of park closures in December, agreed to a point, erring on the side of closing earlier.

“Our responsibility is to Bidwell Park and playgrounds,” he said. “People are calling it a homeless issue. It’s not a homeless issue that we have to deal with—that’s not our responsibility.”

All said and done, the commission voted 5-0 (Valerie Reddemann was absent; one seat is vacant) to forward the issue to the policy committee. Glatz suggested studying parks around the country for guidelines on closure times. McReynolds said she’d like to see statistics from the police department on how many calls and/or arrests are made in the parks between 11 p.m. and midnight.