By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer
The Portland Business Alliance has brought forth a bill to
the Oregon Legislature that for all intents and purposes is a shot over the
bow of the city’s sidewalks — and everyone who uses them.
House Bill 2963, under the general sponsorship of the House Judiciary
Committee, would prohibit the state from preempting a city’s authority to
control or regulate the use of its sidewalks. This is significant because Portland’s
efforts to control people’s use of public sidewalks have largely been tempered
by state statute — reinforced by the state’s constitution that says that cities
can’t preempt state law. That was the case in 2005 and again in 2009, when the
city’s ordinance were ruled unconstitutional by appellate and circuit courts.
This bill, however, would say that city rules trump state
laws on the singular issue of sidewalk use.
“The intention is to clarify the city’s authority to
regulate a city’s sidewalk activity,” said PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern. Doern
insisted that’s where it begins and ends at this point, and she denied that any
plans or efforts are underway by the PBA to change the city’s existing sidewalk
management ordinance at this time. Doern said there was confusion on sidewalk
law following mixed decisions by two courts in 2009.
“Right now we’re working on the first step,” Doern said.
“Because of what happened in 2009, us and Eugene and a few other cities from
across the state want to clarify state law, so that’s why we’re working with
other chambers around the state on this piece of legislation. It’s something
that other cities are grappling with.”
For more than a decade, Portland’s downtown sidewalks have
been the battleground between the PBA, who say panhandlers and loitering youths
are a deterrent to patrons, and homeless advocates who have fought for equal
space in the downtown corridor.
In its early years, the battle focused on police enforcement
procedures because of the high proportion of homeless people being told to move
or receiving citations. Over the years, the ordinance has been modified and
procedures messaged as court cases surfaced. One circuit court judge ruled that
the 2003 version was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.” In 2005, an
appellate judge declared it was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the
state law regarding disorderly conduct. That state law prohibits obstructing
traffic on a sidewalk, but only when there is “intent to cause public
inconvenience, annoyance, etc.” The conflict was that the city’s ordinance went
further, prohibiting obstruction regardless of any intention, so state law
prevailed. In 2009, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong came
to the same conclusion that it was unconstitutional on these grounds.
The current ordinance came into being two years ago allowing
a compromise that people can sit or lie on the sidewalk, at least 8 to 10 feet
away from buildings on the curb said, with a cleared walking area for
pedestrians. It is enforced from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Becky Straus, legislative director with the American Civil
Liberties Union of Oregon, says the ACLU’s concerns are two-fold.
“It seems that the Portland Business Alliance is asking the
Legislature to overrule Oregon case law that says that the Portland
ordinance — or at least a prior version
of the Portland ordinance — is preempted by state law,” Straus said. “The state
statute on disorderly conduct talks about when it is lawful and when it is
unlawful to obstruct traffic, including on a sidewalk. That statute is
carefully crafted so as not to criminalize people who are engaging in protected
free expression activity. The safeguards in the state law are crucial but the
PBA is saying that, when it comes to how people use their city sidewalks, that
protection isn't needed. We disagree.”
Straus calls this the first step in a longer campaign to
revisit the flawed
sit-lie ordinance in Portland.
ACLU has had concerns about these ordinances from the beginning,” she said. “By
their very nature they are set up to target certain people in certain
places in our city and that kind of disparate enforcement is questionable, at
best. We cannot support a proposal where the ultimate goal is to further
erode the ability of people in Portland to engage in innocent, protected
Goracke, an attorney specializing in homeless issues with the Oregon Law
Center, says that removing the “intent” requirement required by state law
“could mean that many more people could be prosecuted for
violating the city's sidewalk ordinance, even unintentionally.”
Goracke also notes that
while Oregon’s state constitution provides strong protections for free speech, broadening
the city’s street ordinance could have an impact on panhandling.
“If a new, broader sidewalk
management law was enacted, it is possible that speech asking for money could
be regulated more aggressively than it is now,” Goracke said.
“The issues around use of
the sidewalks have been actively debated in Portland for a long time now,”
Goracke said. “Many people and groups have spent a lot of time and energy
working to find compromise, not just once but through multiple rounds of
discussions through the years. We don’t condone intentionally bad
behavior, but the City already has tools to deal with that. My concern
about a more punitive approach, which I think this bill represents, is that it
will have a disproportionate impact on people who use the sidewalks because
they have nowhere else to go. More citations and fines for these
individuals would be counter-productive to the goal of ending homelessness.
Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, sits on the House
Judiciary Committee and has watched Portland cycle through numerous versions of
sidewalk control laws. She says laws like sit-lie will remain subject to a high
bar of constitutionality even with this proposal to keep it local.
“I’m not generally supportive of these kinds of laws, but I
do think that it is important to have it at the city council level,” said
Williamson, who is also a former volunteer attorney with the American Civil
Liberties Union. “I’m OK with the proposal (HB 2936) as it stands now, but very
concerned about the constitutionality of (sit-lie) laws. Either way, the
constitutionality is still a hurdle.”
Street Roots is still waiting on responses from Commissioner
Nick Fish, who heads up housing and homeless issues, and Commissioner Amanda
Fritz, who championed the advisory committee around the sidewalk management
In an interview earlier this month with Street Roots, Mayor
Charlie Hales called the city’s current sidewalk ordinance dysfunctional, and
that business owners, shoppers and homeless advocates are equally unhappy with
the status quo. Hales suggested he was in favor of moving to a new version of
the ordinance that “works better.”
Hales was unavailable for comment this morning, but Dana Haynes, the mayor’s
communications director, said that while the PBA’s bill was not on their
priority list for this legislative session, “any legislation that clarifies the
rules regarding pre-emption would be a good thing. We generally support
legislation that gives us more authority to do things better, but we haven’t
yet landed on where we are on this bill.”
Janet Byrd, executive director of Neighborhood Partnerships,
said the issue of opening the door to yet another sidewalk ordinance proposal
is of concern to her and the state’s Housing Alliance, which she represents.
“The Housing Alliance doesn’t yet have an official position
on HB 2963,” Byrd said. “We are concerned about any bill that would criminalize
homelessness. We know that our communities are stronger when everyone has a
safe decent place to call home, and when we work together to address community
needs. The answer to homelessness is not to brush it aside, out of sight, but
to develop housing options that meet the needs our communities face.”
Look for more to come in Street Roots.