TWO "LISTENING SESSIONS" over the last week show the public is overwhelmingly against the city's controversial sidewalk-obstruction ordinance—AKA the sit-lie ordinance—but their outspoken opposition may not be enough to persuade the city council to repeal it in the fall.
Homeless people, social services advocates, and the general public voiced their testimony at a "truth commission" held at Sisters of the Road Café on NW 6th and Everett last Thursday, August 7, and again at a listening session organized by the mayor's Street Access for Everyone (SAFE) committee at the First Unitarian Church on SW 12th and Salmon on Monday, August 11.
You can read full coverage of the sessions at blogtown.portlandmercury.com, although very little of what was said was new: Concerns were once again raised repeatedly about civil rights abuses, unfair enforcement, and lack of accompanying services. Others pointed out that the ordinance is dividing the community, and that homeless people are being unfairly targeted for the failure of downtown business to compete with suburban shopping malls.
City Commissioner Nick Fish, a civil rights attorney, was present at both meetings. He described the testimony as "very powerful and very helpful," and even quizzed Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese about whether there had been any legal challenges to the law. He also asked whether those targeted by the law are generally known to police officers as homeless people.
But unlike Fish's fellow City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who has said he is against the ordinance on civil rights grounds and that he will most likely vote against it if he gets the opportunity, and city council candidates Amanda Fritz and Charles Lewis, who have both said they are against the law in its current form, Fish—who is likely to be the swing vote on council when the law is up for renewal next spring—is staying firmly tight-lipped about his position.
"I'm here to listen, not to talk," Fish told the Mercury after the truth commission meeting, when pressed to clarify his position on the law.
If Fish ultimately decides to support the ordinance, it would be fair to ask whether the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), the driving force behind the ordinance from day one, has bought him off.
Campaign contribution records show Fish received $6,925 from the PBA and its affiliates in the run-up to the May 20 election. The PBA's lobbyist, Bernie Bottomly, emailed PBA members on May 8, urging them to support Fish's candidacy. Fish, who didn't take a position on the ordinance during his campaign, ultimately trounced his election opponent, Jim Middaugh, an outspoken critic of the law.
The PBA's control over the enforcement of the ordinance is far reaching. At Monday's listening session, Sisters of the Road Community Organizer Patrick Nolen pointed out that 133 of 159 police contacts associated with the law have been made by two officers paid for by the PBA, Craig Dobson and Michael Cox ["Best Cops Money Can Buy," News, Aug 9, 2007].
Those prosecuted under the ordinance are dealt with in community court—which is financially supported by the PBA in partnership with Multnomah County—and they do community service through the PBA's community service arm, Clean and Safe.
The PBA's spokesperson, Marion Haynes, emailed the Mercury with a response to this story on Tuesday afternoon, August 12.
"To suggest that Commissioner Fish or any other council member can be bought is beyond inappropriate," she wrote. "If you are asking if we have discussed the SAFE ordinance with Commissioner Fish, we have not yet had the opportunity."
Fish's chief of staff, Sam Chase, says the commissioner is still assessing his strategy priorities.
"He has not made up his mind that he is going to vote one way or the other on this," Chase says. "I think Nick has shown every sign in the world that he is trying to go through an education process to see where all the community members are on this law."
He adds: "There is no connection between his contributions from the PBA and his intellectual analysis of how he can best serve Portland's homeless population. Just because he got $1,000 from the PBA, and you have a record that folks who happen to be PBA members also made contributions, that is not even five percent of his campaign budget."