Oof. It's been a hard week for the Portland Business Alliance. First they get called "petulant children" after accusing the city's homeless newspaper of "yellow journalism" yesterday, then they get roundly defeated on one of their principle advocacy issues of the last five years. Still, at least the mayor was gracious enough to use the velvet glove this morning, rather than the iron fist...
update, 6:18pm: The O's columnist Anna Griffin also says the PBA "overreacted" in its approach to Street Roots.
update 2, 8:40pm: The mayor's office has published video of the meeting, which you can watch here. Back to original post:
Mayor Sam Adams and City Commissioner Nick Fish held a closed meeting with 80 leaders from Portland's business community under the Pioneer Square Starbucks this morning to discuss the future of the city's sit/lie ordinance, which until recently outlawed sitting and lying on the sidewalk downtown during the day. Adams and Fish used the opportunity to educate business leaders about some of the reasons why they can't just come up with another sit/lie law, since the old one was declared unconstitutional earlier this year.
Fish and Adams said council now plans to come up with a "Free Sidewalk Plan" that essentially puts all the existing laws around sidewalk access under one banner, is easy to understand, constitutional, and legal. The aim is to do so within 60 days. This position essentially repeated Fish's "this is America" explanation of the proposed plan, which includes disability access and fire code laws, from late last month. The Free Sidewalk Plan will put more focus on providing opportunities for Portlanders to donate their change to services, instead of giving money to beggars, and there will also be a public education component. But Fish and Adams were clear: The era of coming up with unconstitutional end-runs around the law to target homeless people is at an end.
"I would be less than candid if I didn't acknowledge that this is not going to be sit/lie two," said Fish.
"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."
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 it's been tried before, and that 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 short of shake their cup, and it's very quiet," prompting laughter from the audience. "Panhandling is protected free expression under the constitution," said 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."
More details—including the reaction of homeless advocates to being turned away from the meeting—after the jump.
Central precinct commander Mike Reese showed the group charts showing that downtown crime has actually reduced 34 percent over the last five years. "For a city to [do that] is remarkable," said Reese. "But I feel your pain. We deal with crime but also the perception of crime, and for us that perception is reality."
Business owners voiced repeated concerns about "road warrior youth" downtown, including one person who said he had water balloons filled with urine thrown into his business. "Don't lump the homeless issue in with the road warrior issue," said Powell's owner Michael Powell. City Attorney Meng said the state constitution meant the city can only focus on behavior, not on singling out any one group for special treatment.
Adams and Fish also said Portland is suffering because of the recession. "If you're not following our budget cuts to basic services, then what's going on on the street will seem like a surprise," said Adams. "But if you're following, then it's no surprise." "The mayor and I have a very tough hand right now," said Fish. "We are in the top five in hunger, homelessness and unemployment nationally, and there is an enormous strain on the system. More than 1600 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 this sidewalk problem I hope we can also get your ideas on solving that problem as well."
The mayor had originally scheduled today's meeting to talk about his new retail marketing strategy for downtown, but had to hold it over until next week, because of all the questions about the sidewalk access strategy. Here's the agenda:
So much for the promised open and public process around this issue. The meeting was open to press and members of the invited business community only—homeless advocates were turned away at the door by rent-a-cops and a lady with a clip board, asking "did you RSVP?":
"Because of state law and quorum issues, my colleagues on council couldn't be here today without triggering a whole bunch of other stuff," said Adams, during the meeting—meaning the meeting would have to be open to the public under Oregon's open meetings law. "But I didn't want their absence today to be misconstrued."
One person who did show up and was turned away was homeless advocate Patrick Nolen from Soapbox Under The Bridge. Adams met with Nolen and other homeless advocates on September 1, and told Nolen this morning that he wanted to hold separate meetings with both constituencies.
"He said this was a closed meeting only for downtown businesses," says Nolen. "And that there had been a separate meeting for activists. I said I wanted to come to this one, because if we're going to come up with a common solution, it would help me to figure our where the other side was coming from."
"His response to me was that he didn't think he and I were going to come up with a common solution," Nolen continues. "It really frustrated me because when I worked at Sisters of the Road I really put a lot of energy into trying to work with the common solution that we had in place, and trying to make it work."
"He said 'you've got to let me govern' and 'you've got to trust me'," says Nolen. "But if there are some people that have a view that is different from mine, I'd at least like to hear it so that I know where they are coming from."
As an aside, I'm not sure how I feel about Adams closing the meeting. On the one hand, I would always prefer these issues to be aired in public. On the other, former Mayor Tom Potter insisted on months of open committee discussion on this law and never had the guts to stand up to the Portland Business Alliance on the constitutional issues of sit/lie ordinances.
Adams may have circumvented Potter's old sham "public process," this morning, but he also went past the leaders of the PBA and gave the cold hard truth to the PBA's members—folks like Michael Powell, the Kalberer Company, Carl Greve Jewellers, Embassy Suites, Hotel 50, Brooks Brothers, Pioneer Place—not to mention development leaders like Bruce Warner, boss of the Portland Development Commission, in a way Potter never did. To do so may have exposed Potter's old "Street Access For Everyone" committee as the sham it once was, but I for one am more encouraged than ever about the probable solution being proposed on these so-called "issues" being one that homeless advocates and civil rights groups can live with. It will be interesting to read the draft proposals as soon as they become available.