I was so frustrated last weekend, reading all the reports for this week’s Committee meetings. Between the Equal Access Report (PDF), and the awful, awful retail enhancement (PDF) and economic development (PDF) stuff that I complained about on Wednesday, it was just some particularly painful homework. The highlight of all my reading was a line in a report about some municipal code amendments (PDF) for the Public Safety Committee explaining why we should add a prohibition against urinating and defecating in public:
Persons urinating and defecating in public places and/or places open to public view is offensive, against common decency, adversly impacts the quality of life in neighborhoods and creates a nuisance and public health hazard.
So efficiently stated. And so true. After wading through hundreds of pages of truly mindless bureaucratese, the simplicity of this well-reasoned assertion made me smile.
Perhaps you’re wondering why the City would be deciding just now to ban public urination. So, last summer, the Council approved a Special Prosecution Team (PDF) for the City Attorney’s office designed to combat quality of life offenses. The office is partnering with the District Attorney to allow the three members of the team to prosecute offenses that the DA’s office doesn’t have the resources to deal with, ideally imposing community service type punishments.
So as part of this effort, the office reviewed sections of the Municipal Code addressing quality of life issues, and brought several amendments to Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee, repealing sections duplicative of State law, amending sections to make prosecution more flexible, and adding sections that were missing. OPD’s Lieutenant Green introduced the item to the Committee by giving some background about the intent behind it:
No matter where you live in Oakland, the biggest thing that everybody faces is quality of life issues. And mostly the quality of life issues revolve around street corner drug dealing and prostitution. This set of ordinances and modifications of ordinances I think is really going to be helpful to give the community some sense of control of their neighborhoods. Cause I think people really feel frustrated with really feeling incapable of taking control of their neighborhoods, partly because, in the prior system, with the DA being responsible for charging mostly misdemeanor violations of these various laws, nobody was getting charged for anything. And then the police really are not pushing things the same way. With this special prosecution program, and the flexibility with things being prosecuted as misdemeanors and infractions, I think we’re going to be able to get a lot more leverage.
So then you had the public speakers, one attorney from the East Bay Community Law Center, and one representative from the Homeless Action Center. They complained that although the proposal was presented as being aimed at addressing drug dealing and prostitution, the ordinances did not deal specifically with that problem:
You are being asked to approve the continuing presence in the Oakland Municipal Code of some ordinance that are, we believe, unconstitutional under more recent court decisions. And what we are proposing to you, and strongly urge, that rather than passing these ordinance onto Council now, you make a decision not to do it, you send them back for further consideration and input, because I think the kind of issues we’re raising in this letter and other issues which we would like to raise need to be addressed. There’s no point in passing an ordinance that is unconstitutional. It won’t help anybody, it won’t deal with drug dealing, it won’t deal with prostitution, it just is a waste of time.
Once the public comment was over, Pat Kernighan asked for clarification of what they were being asked to do, because in her reading of the item, the laws being specifically objected to by the speakers as unconstitutional were not new laws, but already on the books. The response was that this was correct:
The only action that would be affected by this legislation is to give discretion to lower the charge, basically. Make it more lenient. So to the extent that the speakers have challenged the vailidity of those ordinances, it’s not an action item today. They already exist as misdemeanors, and the only action today is to reduce them at the discretion of the prosecutor.
Kernighan said that while she did not want to criminalize the condition of being homeless, she was sympathetic to the goals of the program, and asked for some clarifications on how the options would be utilized by the police and the prosecutors. Lt. Green responded that there would be significant training for the police, then:
There’s so much crime…We don’t really have any interest in trying in trying to scoop up extra people than we need to. We have our hands full with the aggressive panhandlers and people who are constituting a danger.
He then added that he would welcome having the homeless advocacy community participate in training for the police.
Staff from the City Attorney’s office then reiterated that the Committee was not being asked to adopt ordinances the homeless advocates were objecting to as unconstitutional, but rather to allow an option of a reduced charge for existing ordinances, and emphasized the broad community support for the program. Jean Quan asked a bunch of clarifying questions, in response to which we learned, again, that adopting the item in question would not introduce a new ordinance, nor would it necessarily change the level of citation for violating the ordinance, but would simply give the prosecutors discretion to charge these crimes either as a misdemeanor (which they are currently) or now as an infraction, as they deem appropriate.
Up to this point, the discussion was fine. Sure, we heard the same thing over and over again, and sometimes after a long day, that can get pretty tiring. But in general, I don’t mind. I much prefer that the Council be extremely clear on what they’re voting on than they just push things through in a hurry.
Then, the whole thing just collapsed. Jean Quan, totally randomly, started talking about the County’s alcohol detention center. She’s bothered that the Oakland police don’t take more people there, and doesn’t see how approving this would do anything to get more Oakland residents into the center. You know, I don’t see how the Committee approving the ordinance is going to do anything to make the sidewalks downtown less treacherous to my heels, but I didn’t feel the need to march down to City Hall and protest it because of that.
She received a very polite response explaining that first, someone passed out in the street from alcohol needs to go to a hospital, not a detention center, and that two, the center is for people who want to go there willingly for treatment, and it’s not something you can force people to do.
Jean Quan then asked if the proposal had been presented to Project Reconnect, and got yet another response from the attorney’s office explaining that the proposal was not about homelessness at all. Quan responded that in order for the misdemeanor prosecutions to be successful, we need cooperation of homeless advocacy organizations to create restorative justice programs for them. She suggested delaying the item for a month, and said they should, in the meantime, meet with a coalition of homeless advocates to give their input about how to craft a restorative justice program for homeless people who can’t pay their tickets.
The representative then responded that while she’d be happy to do that, since the type of program Quan was describing is completely outside the scope of responsibility or authority of the City Attorney’s office, they’d need to involve Health and Human Services. Quan seemed to think that was just peachy, and suggested that while they’re at it, they get the County involved. Oh, and also see what the County can do about getting more use out of the alcohol detention center.
Nancy Nadel complained that the laws already on the books could be targeted against homeless people, then started talking about the alcohol detention center and how we need to be using it more, initiating a discussion about the constitutionality of forcing unwilling people into the center. Then she gave a little lecture about restorative justice and how the City doesn’t fund homeless programs enough.
Jean Quan then suggested that they move forward with the loitering and drug solicitation parts of the proposal, since the homeless advocates weren’t upset by those, and keep the rest to come back to a meeting at the end of January.
You know, this is exactly what I’ve been complaining about this week. The City Attorney’s office wanted to make some minor changes to the municipal code that would improve the special prosecution team’s ability to address quality of life offenses. It was really, really simple. So what do Jean Quan and Nancy Nadel do? Turn it into the whole circus of completely unrelated issues.
Certainly, it may be true that we should talk to the County about getting more use from the alcohol detention center, and perhaps we should work with the homeless advocacy community to create more restorative justice programs for homeless people. But neither of those things had anything whatsoever to do with the item at hand, and if Quan and Nadel wanted to address them, the appropriate action would be to go to Rules Committee and agendize a discussion of those issues. Not delay something sort of tangentially related for over a month and get other departments and government agencies involved.
Perhaps it would be wise to review existing ordinances for constitutionality. But delaying passage of this item does nothing to address that either. Because, as was explained repeatedly at the meeting, the ordinance that was being objected to is already on the books. Failing to amend it to allow for a lesser charge does not make it go away.
Every last thing the Council passes does not have to be all things to all people. And the way some Councilmembers act like it does…well, that’s exactly why nothing ever gets done in Oakland. Why can’t we just pass something very simple that does one thing, then move on and work on doing the next thing on it’s own, and then, when we finish that, the next thing? It just isn’t that complicated!
An obviously exceedingly frustrated Larry Reid offered this:
We supported this program, and talked about giving them tools to go out and deal with things that they – the small things that are not being taken care of, the small things that improve the quality of life for the people in this city.
And certainly, you know, I’m not anti-homeless. But let me give you an example. I was going to a restaurant down on Broadway, and a homeless person approached me. And ultimately, you know, he got very, very belligerent, went to the extent of pulling a knife. And he got really nasty, to the point that I was going to forget that I was a Councilmember and revert back to the time where I was a much younger person, and when I was in the Marine Corps and just deal with the issue that way.
But it’s those kind of issues that exist in this city. And I’ll give you an example. You got on 98th and International. You know, I’m on my way home from church, there’s a guy that pulls his pants down and shows his behind. I mean, you know, that’s not what I want people that’s visiting my home and see and think that’s what’s acceptable to the City of Oakland. I just think we make things absolutely so much more difficult than they actually have to be, and it is frustrating. And I’ll just leave it at that.
Then Nancy Nadel started talking about how she wants a fiscal analysis and explanation of how they can create a city run community service program like she wanted, but couldn’t do for parking tickets. Again, completely irrelevant and totally outside the scope of the power or interest of the City Attorney’s office. Infuriating!
You know, I know I mentioned in a post last week that I’ve largely lost interest in complaining about the press on this blog. But I cannot let today’s Trib story on this item pass without comment. First, I don’t think it gave a very clear picture of what the issues at hand were or what happened at the meeting. That’s to be expected. But the line “Committee Chairman Larry Reid (Elmhurst-East Oakland) said the technical back-and-forth and legal jargon gave him a headache” is completely outrageous. One, this makes Larry Reid sound like an idiot who couldn’t understand the discussion enough to follow it. Second, that is completely not the context of what he said about the headache – he was pointing out how frustrated he was that the Committee wouldn’t just support the program they had all approved at Council and were tying it up with unrelated issues. I really felt the way that was presented was inappropriate. Also, when a Councilmember gives two examples of why something is important, one involving seeing someone’s “behind” and another involving being threatened with a knife by a solicitor on Broadway, one of them is obviously better to use in the newspaper. And it is not the one in the story.