MEDFORD — Under threat of a lawsuit, the Medford City Council Thursday approved giving police the authority to ban people from the downtown for illegal conduct, though some councilors and audience members suggested the new law targets the homeless.
The ordinance, which expands on a law that applies to city parks, would create an exclusion zone bordered by Bear Creek, Oakdale Avenue, Sixth Street and 10th Street.
Medford resident Bill Mansfield, a retired lawyer, said he plans to file a suit against the city, similar to a lawsuit he filed April 17 against the city of Ashland for allegedly violating the rights to free speech and assembly.
“I don’t enjoy coming here and criticizing you, because you are my friends,” said Mansfield, who is also on the Medford Planning Commission.
Mansfield said the exclusion ordinance in Medford, which would ban someone for up to 90 days, is similar to the one in Ashland.
“They are both fatally flawed,” he said.
The Ashland lawsuit, prepared by Mansfield, was filed by Debra M. Neiswander and Carol J. Voisin.
Some of the illegal activity that could get someone banned from the downtown include drunkenness, sex offenses, criminal mischief, graffiti, failure to control dangerous dogs, public urination, harassment, menacing and theft. Sleeping or camping in the downtown wouldn’t trigger the exclusion.
While some councilors objected to the ordinance as a way to deal with the homeless problem, most didn’t see it that way.
Councilor Clay Bearnson said, “This is not about a war on homelessness. This is about dealing with criminal activities.”
Mayor Gary Wheeler said the new ordinance doesn’t mention homelessness but is a way to deal with people engaged in unlawful behavior. Downtown business owners have reported problems with drunk people leaving bars late at night.
“We are looking for people who are breaking the rules,” Wheeler said.
The council spent almost two hours listening to audience members and discussing the issue, with much of the conversation revolving around the issue of homelessness.
“Will we be banning people from the downtown for sleeping?” Councilor Kevin Stine asked.
Police Chief Randy Sparacino said police won’t ban people from downtown if they are caught sleeping. Currently 101 people are excluded from Medford parks under the existing ordinance.
Stine cited a list of people who had been excluded after being caught camping or sleeping along the Bear Creek Greenway and other areas. Sparacino said some of those people had previous violations, including trespassing.
Councilor Kay Brooks said she found 20 service agencies in the downtown area that the homeless might not be able to access.
“I don’t know how you can create an exclusionary zone and not know what you are excluding them from,” she said.
Stine and Brooks voted against the exclusion ordinance.
The council did expand on a provision in the ordinance that would allow people who have been excluded to go to mental health and other services in the downtown.
A half-dozen residents spoke about the ordinance, with most opposing it.
“This is part of a pattern of criminalizing homelessness,” said Michelle Glass of Unite Oregon.
Central Point resident Sarah McLaughlin said her husband comes to downtown Medford to drop the kids off with their grandparents.
“They ask, ‘Why is there a pile of poop on the sidewalk?’ ”
Instead of passing more laws that likely will be ineffective, McLaughlin suggested, “We need to help these people, not push them out.”
She said some people have objected to installing portable toilets because it will attract homeless people.
“They’re already here,” McLaughlin said. “It we give them options, they will do other things.”
But others supported the new ordinance.
Sage Taylor, owner of Wamba Juice and Deli, said the homeless problem has resulted in people relieving themselves in alleys and on sidewalks and has created problems with vandalism.
“This is affecting my business,” she said.
Matt Prouty, who lives downtown, said homeless people have taken over Alba Park, and he said he’s been verbally assaulted by some of them.
“They have deemed it their park,” he said.
Prouty said he donates food to local shelters, but he thinks it’s time the city passes an ordinance that will deal with the problem.
“We’re kind of at the point where this is getting out of control,” he said.