Sit-lie ban
Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 1, 1997

DOWNTOWN: Sit-lie ban

will be back Jan. 21 Palo Alto City Council will give another look to law prohibiting sitting on sidewalks

by Peter Gauvin

One of the Palo Alto City Council's first New Year's resolutions could be: Thou shalt not sit or lie on the sidewalk. Although it met with some vocal opposition when it was introduced last summer, a proposed ordinance banning sitting or lying on University Avenue sidewalks downtown is scheduled to return to the council Jan. 21.

More than 30 people spoke out about the law when it came before the City Council July 8. And only a handful supported the proposal. Many said the law is directed at ridding the sidewalks of homeless people.

Nevertheless, a majority of the City Council members appeared to favor some version of the law, and, on a 7-2 vote, referred it back to the City Attorney's Office.

The proposal was scheduled to come back to the council in September, and then in November, but it was crowded off the agenda by other issues.

The law, which is modeled after a Seattle law that has withstood court challenges, would ban sitting and sleeping on University between High and Cowper streets between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. It would also prohibit sitting on milk crates or any other device that is not a fixed piece of furniture or provided by a business establishment.

Police Chief Chris Durkin said the law is needed for the public's safety. "When people sit on a sidewalk, they impede progress," he told the council in July. "They pose a significant hazard for the elderly and others."

City Attorney Ariel Calonne said there have been two changes to the proposed law: Violators would be charged with an infraction as opposed to a misdemeanor, and there would be exceptions to allow for street performers and parades.

Although it isn't final yet, Calonne said the city would probably designate areas for street performers to avoid the hassles and costs associated with issuing permits.

Council member Micki Schneider, who supported the idea along with Gary Fazzino and Liz Kniss in July, said on Friday that she still supports the law.

"There are situations when the police need tools to work with," Schneider said. "The intent of the ordinance is not to target the homeless. It's targeted at a specific behavior, not a group of people."

But the city's Human Relations Commission, which was unanimously opposed to the sit-lie ordinance, feels differently. "We felt in spite of everything that was said it was targeted at the homeless population," said Commissioner Litsie Indergand. "The argument that it is a safety issue, that people block sidewalks and so forth, doesn't hold water. . . . If you are concerned about blocking sidewalks write an ordinance that specifically addresses blocking sidewalks."

Across the Bay, Berkeley received clearance from the courts recently to begin enforcing a similar ordinance its voters approved two years ago. On Nov. 22, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkin lifted an injunction that barred the enforcement of the law banning sitting on sidewalks within six feet of buildings.

"We're not worried about legal concerns about sit-lie," Calonne said. "It has been delayed for purely internal scheduling reasons."

In fact, the anti-sitting proposal came about in part because the constitutionality of another Berkeley law banning panhandling has yet to be clearly decided by the courts. In Palo Alto, that has hung up a proposed "aggressive panhandling" law for almost three years. The delay prompted the council to ask the City Attorney's Office to look at some other ordinance to deal with problems downtown; sit-lie was one of them. Two others were unanimously passed in July: an ordinance banning open containers of alcohol around stores that sell alcohol, and an ordinance banning soliciting in public parking lots.

But the aggressive panhandling law may return when Berkeley's appeal is resolved, whenever that is, Calonne said. 

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