The PBA Finally Calls Back 

Downtown Lobbying Group Dishes on New Sidewalk Push

IT'S ENTIRELY UNCLEAR whether Portland is ready for another long and likely acrimonious conversation over its sidewalk rules, nearly four years after a judge ruled the city's controversial "sit-lie" ordinance unconstitutional.

But the Portland Business Alliance (PBA)—which is pushing legislation in Salem meant to revive that discussion—has decided now is as good a time as any to try.

Two weeks after declining to talk to the Mercury about HB 2963, a bill that would lift state limits on local sidewalk rules ["Back in the Cleaning Business," News, Feb 27], PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern agreed to shed some light on the powerful downtown lobbying group's intentions.

"It's not a black-and-white issue," Doern told the Mercury during an extensive conversation last week, explaining her reticence. "How do we have a real conversation on this?" 

She says the PBA isn't necessarily looking for a return to the days of sit-lie—when any otherwise law-abiding person sitting or lying on a sidewalk could face fines. It's just that something, says Doern, has to change. The PBA is increasingly convinced the city's current sidewalk management plan, which allows a 24-hour "free-speech zone" along the curb line, isn't working.

"The feeling and sentiment we've gotten back from residents and property owners and visitors," says Doern, "is that we have an environment right now that's attracting some individuals who are pretty aggressive."

And there's a clear target, as the group sees it: It's not the camping protesters outside city hall or anyone chronically homeless. It's the so-called "street kids" who come to Portland when it's warm, hang out in packs called "families," and then leave when it's cold again.

"There are so many resources in Old Town and downtown for homeless individuals. It's not about that," Doern says. "It's about a different element. There's aggressive behavior and harassment issues."

That's a controversial assertion. Dividing the homeless into "good" and "bad" groups rankles some advocates who also acknowledge that criminal or violent behavior on the streets isn't okay.

The city already does, of course, have laws on the books that address issues like drugs and intoxication and disorderly conduct in the case of people who hector employees and commuters or get in the face of food cart customers.

Doern says the PBA and its members have decided those laws are too cumbersome to be effective.

Enforcing those laws requires someone to come forward and prove they were victims. Which makes, Doern says, relying on them inconvenient.

The old ordinance set up a civil complaint process and a mechanism for casual contact by cops—critics have long complained that was, instead, a vehicle for profiling homeless people as a means of urban sanitation.

"It's harder for a person to press charges or go through the whole system," Doern says. "There's not an effective tool right now for day-to-day livability issues."

The PBA started building its case before the legislative session. It teamed up with the Eugene Chamber of Commerce and started walking the halls of the Capitol—"we got a lot of nodding heads," Doern says. But it's unclear where the bill will go. And even if it does become law, the shape of any new local rules would need hashing out.

"I don't know the various elements or how we would reach out and frame the discussion," Doern says. "But it's Portland. It's going to be a conversation."

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