Like invisible fences, the borders around the city's so-called exclusion zones set aside large swathes of land where accused drug dealers and prostitutes cannot set foot. For the past decade, these zones have been used by neighborhood associations and police officers to kick out the bad elements from designated sections of Portland. It is a medieval concept: If a cop believes that someone is a drug dealer or a hooker, the officer may banish that person for 30 to 90 days, even if there's never a conviction.

With little success, local civil rights attorneys have complained that the exclusion ordinance unfairly targets poor residents, homeless and those who are often unfamiliar with their civil rights and have no way to fight back. Instead, say attorneys, these people simply accept their fate--a one to three month banishment--and wait for the exclusion to expire.

On Thursday, City Council met for four hours to consider whether to reauthorize the controversial exclusion zones and whether to expand their current borders. Under new rules, the prostitution-free zones would stretch further along Northeast Sandy Blvd and West Burnside. The new drug-free zones would expand deeper into North Portland and cover most of the downtown area.

Although council members mulled over some of the ordinance's more offensive elements--like a person being excluded from a neighborhood in which he lives or works--no one believes the exclusion won't be reauthorized. Instead, say civil rights attorneys, the best they can hope for is some minor fine-tuning; concessions to dull the ordinance's more stinging rules.

After four hours of testimony, questions and debate, city council did not vote on the revised ordinance; they will continue to debate the exclusion zones this Thursday.

Clearly, council members were surprised at the scope and use of the exclusions. They requested that the city attorney undertake a study to find out who and how many are excluded from the zones. They are also considering providing waivers to excluded persons who can show legitimate reasons to travel within the zones--such as, the person needing to go home or to work.

Yet, in spite of the dismay expressed at the ordinance, council members did not seem willing to trim back the exclusion rules. Council member Erik Sten proposed narrowing the group who can be excluded from the zones. He suggested that cops could only exclude persons with prior convictions or arrests. But the other three council members rejected the concept outright.

Under pressure from neighborhood groups, the drug-free zones were instigated in 1992. Three years later, city council included the current rules that also exclude prostitutes. This was the first time this type of law had been seen in the country. Several constitutional challenges against the ordinance have failed.