CITY COMMISSIONER Nick Fish and Mayor Sam Adams finally stood up to the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) last week, telling a private meeting composed primarily of PBA members there will be no new version of the controversial sit-lie law.
The law, which outlawed sitting and lying on the sidewalk during the day and was predominantly enforced against homeless people, has been through several different iterations over the years. In June, police stopped enforcement after Judge Stephen Bushong ruled that a version of the law that had been in place since August 2007 was unconstitutional ["Sit-Lie Dies," News, July 2].
Since then, the mayor's office has been sending mixed messages about a possible resurrection of the law in yet another form. "The public doesn't care that this is our fourth pass at trying to craft this law," Adams' chief of staff, Tom Miller, told the Mercury in August. "The public cares about getting this issue right."
The PBA and its members have always been a vocal minority calling for successive versions of the law, but this time, nearly 440 Portlanders joined a Facebook group called "The Sit-Lie Ordinance Is Unconstitutional. Really. Stop Trying to Fix It..." holding city hall phone-ins and sidewalk picnics in opposition to its renewal ["Make Picnic Not War," News, Aug 27].
Fish, a former civil rights attorney, and Adams, who has until recently been a tacit supporter of sit-lie laws, appear to have heard the outcry. They told 80 business leaders gathered at a meeting room at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Friday, September 11, that council now plans to come up with a "Free Sidewalk Plan," putting all existing disability access and fire code laws around sidewalk access under one banner.
"It needs to be easy to understand, constitutional, and legal," said Adams. But the era of end-runs around the constitution to target homeless people is at an end.
"I think we do more harm seesawing back and forth between creating new ordinances and having them declared illegal," said the mayor. "The new package probably won't be as broad as you want, but let's get something stable that works."
"I would be less than candid if I didn't acknowledge that this is not going to be sit-lie two," said Fish.
The business leaders weren't thrilled, asking City Attorney Linda Meng if there weren't ways around the state constitution. "Can't we make all of downtown a park?" asked one business owner—Meng said the courts would see through the obvious attempt to target "behavior we don't like."
"How can we change the state constitution?" asked another business owner. Meng said that has been tried before and such attempts have repeatedly failed.
"I'm wondering if we've looked at the option of privatizing the sidewalks?" asked another. But that's out, Meng said, because "sidewalks are historically the quintessential areas of free expression in this country."
Could we not emulate San Diego, asked another business owner? "They can't get in your face there. They can't panhandle, they just sort of shake their cup, and it's very quiet," he said. "Panhandling is protected free expression under the constitution," responded Meng.
Ultimately however, the business leaders took their medicine. "Because I'm not getting a lot of 'hell no's' from you," said Adams, "I'm going to assume that you're quietly saying 'hell yes.' I do want to emphasize that we are Portland, and we want a healthy functioning place that people are striving to get to."
It was the end of a hard week for the PBA. Vice President of Downtown Services Mike Kuykendall accused the city's homeless advocacy newspaper, Street Roots, of "yellow journalism" on Thursday, September 10, and pulled the PBA's advertising following an editorial saying the city was "tired of wasting time with petty ordinances about sidewalks when we could be using our collective energy to push for poor folks to have access to health care and housing."
Yellow or not, Fish and Adams echoed Street Roots' line in their meeting with PBA members. "The mayor and I have a very tough hand [to play] right now," said Fish. "[Portland is] in the top five in hunger, homelessness, and unemployment nationally, and there is an enormous strain on the system. More than 1,600 people a night are sleeping outside, and I don't have a place for them. So there is a larger problem, and in addition to addressing the sidewalks, I hope we can also get your ideas on solving that problem as well."
The city attorney's office now expects to have its Free Sidewalk Plan ready in less than 60 days. Check blogtown.portlandmercury.com for updates.