Matt Bors

Last Wednesday morning, during the January 25 city council meeting, Mayor Tom Potter asked his colleagues to extend the expiration of the city's Drug-Free and Prostitution-Free Zones (DFZ) until March 15. The mayor needed more time to reform the controversial ordinance—an ordinance that has had neighborhood associations, residents, and businesses tugging at Potter as he tries to balance public safety and civil liberties.

The zones, which allow police to exclude people suspected of drug or prostitution activity, were supposed to expire last fall. Instead of simply renewing the zones then—and extending them to 82nd Avenue in East Portland, as the police have requested—Potter appointed a committee to tinker with the policy. The mayor's plan was to boost individual rights by tying the exclusions to criminal charges (in other words, if you aren't charged with a crime, or you're later acquitted, you don't get excluded from the zones); he planned to bring the new ordinance to the city council in early February.

Reforming the DFZ ordinances, however, has taken longer than expected. "We need some additional time in order to make sure it is done right," Potter told his colleagues, before they approved the emergency extension.

What's the problem? "[We want] to put together an ordinance that will balance public safety while at the same time protecting civil liberties," explains Maria Rubio, Potter's public safety and security policy manager. But fixing the ordinances to Potter's liking by tying the exclusions to criminal charges—a move that addresses many of the criticisms targeted at the DFZ—has proved difficult: "It's become problematic in that regard," Rubio acknowledged.

Connecting the exclusions to the criminal system could open up a constitutional can of worms—the exclusions may wade into double jeopardy territory if they're connected to the criminal process, because they'd punish someone twice for the same crime. So far, the DFZ have been upheld in the courts partly because the exclusions aren't a criminal punishment—they're civil. "We need to find a way to continue using it as a tool, but avoid those [civil versus criminal] issues," Rubio says.

The committee working on the ordinance certainly has its work cut out for it: In addition to wrestling with the zones' potential legal intricacies, there's also a pile of public input to slog through—hundreds of people have weighed in on the DFZ over the past few months.

On one side, there are critics who would like to see the zones eliminated—the ACLU, for example, argues the zones are unnecessary, because legally, judges are the only parties that can exclude someone from an area. Oregon Action organized a postcard campaign lambasting the current setup.

"No one should be given a zone exclusion without a conviction," implored the note, which dozens of people sent to the mayor. Another resident—who works downtown as an attorney—thanked the mayor for considering reforms. "After reading about your stance to modify the Drug-Free Zone ordinance, I can truly say that I finally have a mayor to be proud of," he wrote.

Meanwhile, businesses and several neighborhood organizations have been begging city officials to keep the zones, expand them, or not do anything that could possibly weaken them as a law enforcement tool.

"We feel strongly that the existing guidelines for the Drug-Free Zone around our downtown building plays a major role in making life a little more difficult for some of our shoplifters and we are very concerned that weakening this ordinance will have a negative impact on doing business downtown," wrote Mark Zertanna, Meier and Frank's regional vice president of operations.

James Bennett, chair of the Overlook Neighborhood Association, asked that the city expand the zones around their North Portland neighborhood: "The DFZ is an important tool for law enforcement efforts in addressing the troubling issue of the persistent presence of illegal drugs on our streets."

A draft of the new ordinance—one that will no doubt walk a fine line between keeping the zones and reforming them to quell criticism—is expected in the next few weeks.