Missoulian Editorial Board Shills for Downtown Businesses
The Missoulian editorial board wants us to know that avoiding litigation should NOT be the main concern of city officials regarding the constitutionally dubious ordinance amendments rushed through last month. No, their main concern should be downtown businesses:
While litigation is always something to avoid whenever possible, Missoula’s city councilors should not let that be their overriding concern. Rather, they should keep foremost in their minds that downtown Montana has a legitimate problem with aggressive, vandalizing behavior – a problem that demands a legitimate solution. Whether that solution requires ordinance changes or enforcement changes, it ought to be one that respects the rights and civil liberties of all.
Missoula, like many cities, has long struggled with how best to respond to the unwanted behaviors that seem to concentrate downtown. They range from obviously unsanitary and unsafe activities like public urination and defecation, to less obvious things like repeated, increasingly insistent demands for money from passers-by.
The worse these behaviors are allowed to get, the harder it is on those who work, shop and visit downtown. And it hits downtown businesses hardest, because they’re the ones that see the cumulative effects of all these individual instances: frightened employees and fewer customers.
Despite the narrow framing of the Missoulian editorial board, the solution is neither ordinance changes or enforcement changes. People in Missoula might understand that if our local daily bothered including the cost of over-utilizing ER services and the county jail for people consumed with addiction and mental illness.
The only people that seem to matter in this conversation are shoppers, employees and business owners. That is obviously the interests the Missoulian editorial board represent, which is what I think people should keep in mind as the editorial board concludes their op-ed with this:
So this month, Mayor John Engen expressed his hope that Missoula could tweak the ordinances to avoid a lawsuit, and the item was moved back to committee for further discussion. In committee, Engen is expected to share some ideas he’s been hammering out with the ACLU for changing the ordinance.
But in public comment offered earlier this month, two active members of the downtown community – Dan Cederberg and Matt Ellis – reminded council members that the ordinances and subsequent changes made to them were brought about because of continued struggles over downtown’s cleanliness and safety.
It’s awfully soon to say whether ordinance changes would accomplish the intended goal of making downtown Missoula cleaner and safer – or cost the city an expensive lawsuit. However, it’s clear that allowing things to stand as they were was already costing Missoula plenty, and downtown businesses have been bearing the majority of these costs.
The city council ought to keep that in mind as well as it discusses ordinances designed to make Missoula’s downtown – indeed, all of Missoula – safe, clean and inviting for all.
This is absolutely NOT true. These ordinances are designed to insulate downtown from “those people” and in doing so, the proponents of these ordinances don’t appear too concerned that the probable result will be relocating problematic behavior to other parts of town, like parks and the surrounding neighborhoods.
And downtown businesses are not bearing the majority of the costs. St. Pat’s writes off around 4 million dollars annually by reacting to addiction and mental illness through the ER, and I’d like to see the court/jail costs quantified so Missoulians can better understand the real cost of our community’s failure.
This Missoulian op-ed on behalf of downtown businesses ran the day these ordinances were discussed in committee. Thanks to the second life of Bob Jaffe’s listserv, we have some commentary from Caitlin Copple and Jason Wiener to consider.
Administration & Finance
Adam now chairs this committee. Wet housing came up right away since we had just talked about the above-mentioned ordinances and were set to approve a contract regarding the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. Jason said CDBG and HOME funds will be set aside to do a small amount of permanent supportive housing but that they won’t be enough and that providers are working to get this off the ground. I find the pace frustrating. When will we actually see this project happen? I would support giving more money to providers if it means they can quickly and meaningfully solve the problems of bad behavior by drunk people downtown through housing that fills the true need.
Copple is frustrated? I can sympathize with that. I find the pace frustrating as well, but service providers don’t seem to command the kind of influence that makes things happen fast, like thinking up these amendments in early fall and getting them passed before the end of the year.
Here is what Jason has to say (the lead-in is a reference to the ADU issue, which is back in the headlines):
On the heels of discussioning whether to make it legal for someone to inhabit a private space, we returned to our ongoing discussion of laws regulating the degree to which downtown public space should be regulated. The mayor brought forward a number of revisions, and the summary is reprinted in Caitlin’s email. There was not consensus on a coupleof points: The ACLU objects to definition of solicitation (which bans silently holding a sign) and objects to the ban on sitting (As the mayor says, it would make the cost of soliciting in the CBD standing, however if someone can’t stand or is playing an instrument that requires sitting they are banned.) Dan Cederberg, representing the interests that supported the ordinance, objected to removing the sit, sleep, lie in tunnel provisions and removal of exclusion zones based on distance from a vendor and advised that they would like them back in the ordinance if we are facing litigation regardless. PSH has just Jon, who was running the meeting, Alex and me as well as the four new people. In order to get something going, I made a motion to advance the ordinance the mayor sent, with changes removing the provisions the ACLU objected to. We set a public hearing on Feb. 10. The revised ordinance is better in many ways than the one that was on the books before so I see some benefit in moving forward but this whole thing has left me with a very bad taste. The conversation has been consumed by fear, people describing how one thing or another they see or experience makes them afraid and some of the things that have been described are scary. But the insistence that the definition of soliciting include silently holding a sign? That’s not disturbing because it makes someone afraid. It’s disturbing because it confronts us with want and I think the emotion it evokes is guilt or shame, not fear. The same goes for people who are passed out cold or so far from sane that they are asleep in their own excrement. Guilt and shame don’t make consuming more fun; they can really put a damper on that stuff. It reminded me of the Women in Black vigil on the Higgins bridge for so many years. What a bummer it is to be reminded in the middle of our anticipation of a coming weekend about violence and deprivation half a world away but that was solicitation.
There will be more committee hearings and public comment opportunities and city council votes before this mess is figured out. There is also a chance that, despite the Mayor’s attempts to find a compromise, the ACLU may decide to sue anyways.
I hope the work being done to actually move toward solutions isn’t overshadowed by this colossal waste of time and resources. Just read the first paragraph of this boingboing article (h/t @KathleenMKimble):
A program in Salt Lake City decided that it would be smarter — and more humane — to spend $11K/year each to house 17 chronically homeless people and provide them with social workers than it would be to waste the average of $16,670/year per person to imprison them and treat them at emergency rooms. As Nation of Change points out, this commonsense, humane and economically sound way of dealing with homelessness works, unlike the savage approaches taken by other cities (like the Waikiki rep Tom Bowker who smashed homeless peoples’ carts with a sledgehammer, or cities like Tampa, which banned feeding homeless people).
Defenders of the amendments will say it’s about behavior, not homelessness. If I’m not mistaken, I think I read something about a BID study being used to back that up, but I don’t think that study has been made available to the public.
If it’s only about aggressive behavior, I have yet to hear a good explanation about why statutes like disorderly conduct don’t address the threatening behavior proponents of these amendments have described. Maybe I’ll hear a better explanation in the coming months as this process of reconsideration plods along.