by Dave Waddell and Leslie Layton
The Chico City Council, after closing the council chamber to the public and ChicoSol, voted 4-3 in a tense and emotional meeting Tuesday to resurrect the expired Sit and Lie Ordinance.
The conservative council majority voted — after an audience disruption prompted the chamber closure — to bring back an ordinance aimed at people who they say are obstructing sidewalks and business entrances. City Attorney Vince Ewing said that under a California statute, the council could close the chamber to a disruptive audience — but not to members of the press.
Even so, Chico police officers barred ChicoSol News Director Dave Waddell from entering the meeting. Freelance photographer Karen Laslo explained to City Clerk Debbie Presson that she was on assignment for ChicoSol, but Presson nonetheless instructed Laslo to leave.
During the public hearing, Mayor Sean Morgan dealt out progressively stricter punishments in response to audience applause or rowdiness. First he called a 5-minute recess, then a 10-minute recess, then a 15-minute recess, before throwing the public out of the chamber altogether until the Sit and Lie discussion was completed.
The final disruption came when a group of audience members drowned out the discussion at the dais with “Housing for all” and other chants. When the panel re-convened in an almost-empty chamber, meeting video shows council members who were confused, upset and in some cases sniping at each other.
Earlier, City Councilman Andrew Coolidge called for order in the audience, saying that cheering and loud comments from the majority tend to intimidate those with minority views.
“Be an understanding participant in our democracy,” Coolidge said.
Matt Madden, deputy Chico police chief, told the council the Sit and Lie Ordinance was city law from late 2013 until it lapsed on the first day of 2016. During that two-year period, officers wrote 56 citations to 39 different people, which Madden said showed the ordinance was used sparingly, as intended.
“We did see some positive outcomes from this ordinance,” Madden said. “That’s why we’re here tonight” asking that it be reinstated. Madden said “it would be difficult to attempt to quantify the fiscal impact” of the ordinance.
Attorney Ewing acknowledged that any new Sit and Lie Ordinance would have to conform with a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision ruling Tuesday that homeless people cannot be prosecuted for sleeping on public property if no shelter beds are available to them.
Richard Ober, a candidate for Chico City Council in November, cited a “highly credible survey” by Chico State professors that he said found the law, when in effect, cost the city “nearly $800,000” to enforce while not addressing the underlying causes of homelessness.
“I urge you, do not take this wrong approach,” Ober said.
Sandra O’Neill told the Council the ordinance’s agenda was to “keep them moving and make them uncomfortable. … This is about being poor, visible and vulnerable.”
Erica Traverso told those who profess to be “small-government Republicans” on the council that “what you’re doing is making it illegal to sit down.”
Elizabeth Graham described herself as a person with a disability and a college degree who was once homeless. “Many of our friends on the street are Chico natives,” said Graham, wondering where they are supposed to relieve themselves without restrooms at night.
Ellen Galena told the council that it had “led yourself here” by failing to provide 24-hour bathrooms and by inadequately training police officers in crisis intervention techniques.
While in the minority, backers of reviving the Sit and Lie Ordinance also were passionate, with one, Rob Berry, calling for even more sweeping enforcement than was allowed in the previous ordinance.
“My problem with the Sit and Lie Ordinance is that it does not go far enough,” said Berry, advocating for expanding its reach from commercial into residential areas, and from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to 24 hours per day.
Council candidate Kasey Reynolds said she has to worry every day coming to work who might be sleeping outside her downtown business.
“I’m talking about criminal vagrancy,” said Reynolds in backing the revival of Sit and Lie.
After the chamber was closed to the public, Councilman Karl Ory initially balked at returning to the dais. At the mic used by members of the public, Ory asked “under what authority” the public had been excluded.
“You may order the meeting room cleared and continue in session,” Ewing told the council, reading parts of a Brown Act statute that addresses the problem of a disruptive audience. “Representatives of the press or other news media… shall be allowed to any session held pursuant to the section.”
Ewing then encouraged the panel to continue with business, stating that “…the media is here pursuant to the Brown Act…”
Before the discussion got far, Ory was scolded by Mayor Morgan for “two years of interrupting” while Ewing buried his face in his hands. Minutes later, Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer pointed at Ory and also demanded that he “stop interrupting.”
Council member Ann Schwab said she couldn’t support the motion to reinstate Sit and Lie and asked fellow council members to show each other respect and be examples for the community.
“I agree we should not have to walk around people on the sidewalk,” Schwab said. “We should concentrate our efforts on social change. We all know that it’s cheaper to offer services than police protection. I want the police to go after criminals.”
A motion by Coolidge to re-draft the ordinance won the support of Morgan, Fillmer and Councilman Mark Sorensen.
Sorensen indicated he’s exasperated with discussions about resolving some of the city’s problems with housing and other services, and said Sit and Lie isn’t a “magic bullet” but is a good tool for police.
“… 24-hour bathrooms, Simplicity Village… it’s absolutely ridiculous and absurd to suggest that if we did them all it would fix the problem,” Sorensen said. “That’s utter baloney. We don’t have the resources to even begin to go down that road.”
Sorensen said he’s concerned about “aggressive panhandling” and other “abuse” from people on the street.
“We’re talking about uncivil, rude behavior, much like the display we had earlier that caused the council chambers to be cleared,” he said.
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol. Leslie Layton is editor.