The Edmonds City Council Thursday night failed again to vote on an ordinance that would ban camping on city property. The 90-minute virtual special meeting devolved into a literal last-minute rush to try to extend the session, but members voted four times in less than two minutes not to extend the meeting – not even for another five minutes.
When Councilmember Kristiana Johnson tried one last time to call the question to force a vote on the entire ordinance, another member shouted “it’s 9:30” – and Council President Vivian Olson said, “We are adjourned, good night everybody.”
The no camping on public property ordinance is the city’s effort to keep people from living in parks and other public property.
“It is unlawful for anyone to occupy, or store personal property, on public property overnight. Enforcement is suspended against those individuals experiencing homelessness when no available shelter exists. If available shelter exists it is required to be offered, along with other available human services, to the individual(s) experiencing homelessness. Only if the shelter is refused can the ordinance be enforced against those experiencing homelessness.“
–Summary of city council ordinance
The ordinance would give police the power to arrest someone for illegally occupying public property only when two conditions are met: 1) When available overnight shelter exists and 2) when that available shelter has been offered and refused.
Violating the ordinance would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail; but a provision notes that municipal court can order anyone unable to pay to instead perform “community service or work crew in lieu of a monetary penalty.”
The measure stems from two incidents in the last year – one where, after two warnings, officers finally arrested a man for sleeping outside the Edmonds Library. He was cited for trespass, appeared in court, no fines were issued, and the city says that man is now in permanent housing.
The other happened in the Lake Ballinger neighborhood last summer, when a woman camped out for several months on a park bench on the Interurban trail.
Thursday’s special session was a continuation of Tuesday’s council meeting, and it marks the third time in a month that the Council has debated the measure. During Thursday’s meeting, councilmembers added one new amendment — that any shelter offered must be located within a 35-mile radius of Edmonds City Hall – to keep people close to local social service resources. That was approved unanimously.
But that’s about all the members would agree on. “What is the whole point of this?” Councilmember Laura Johnson asked. “This is clearly, clearly targeted at those who are unhoused.”
“We are,” Johnson added, “talking about those among us who have the least… if you don’t have housing, what do you have?”
Councilmember Neil Tibbott responded that “one of the assumptions made is that if we support this ordinance, we are unsympathetic to people who are in difficult situations and unhoused and that’s not accurate. I think most of us would say we want the best for people who are in difficult situations.”
One more item that garnered support was a council request that if the ordinance passes, the police department will provide six-month or yearly reports on how it is working and how the city is meeting the needs of those affected by it; Councilmembers and Police Chief Michelle Bennett informally agreed to that.
But until the council decides to vote on the entire issue, there can be nothing to report on. Councilmember Laura Johnson asked Chief Bennett, “What is the urgency, is this an emergency and is it necessary to act on this tonight?” Bennett responded, “this is always emergent; this ordinance gives us more ability to contact folks and helps propel people into the services they desperately need.”
In its haste to adjourn, the council made no mention of when it would bring the measure up again.
— By Bob Throndsen