By Jack Mayne
Despite a warning that it was unconstitutional to infringe on freedom of religion, the Des Moines City Council effectively banned most of the city’s churches from housing homeless encampments because they must be 1,000 feet from any school.
The Council on Thursday night (Nov. 5) passed the new city rules on such encampments 4 to 2 with Councilmember Luisa Bangs and Mayor Dave Kaplan voting no. Councilmember Bob Sheckler was absent due to illness.
Earlier in the meeting, the Council heard Des Moines Municipal Court Judge Lisa Leone give her first report on the city court and that the Redondo Boardwalk should be open for public use by next summer.
The Councilmembers were also scolded by a resident for cutting off a citizen who was commenting at the previous meeting.
Proposed homeless rules
Denise Lathrop, the city’s community development manager, discussed the city’s proposed ordinance on religious facilities having homeless encampments on their property. The Washington Legislature in 2010 required local ordinances on possible encampments but city officials said there are no such requests at this time.
Lathrop said the one in 20 students in the Highline School District are homeless. The recent homeless count came up with over 10,000 people homeless countywide.
Seattle and King County just recently declared a state of emergency for the homeless, she said.
“There is often the perception that all the people that are in homeless camps are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems,” Lathrop said. “It often is that the people we tend to see because they are more out in the open.
“A lot of it is has to do with housing affordability … particularly in our region. The permanent solution is, obviously, is to provide housing. It has been proven to reduce homelessness and it becomes less of a tax burden for our taxpayers.”
Lathrop said that while encampments are not a solution they are a safety net.
The state law on encampments on the grounds of churches says the city cannot impose restrictions “other than those necessary to protect public health and safety.”
Des Moines does not have any rules regarding homeless encampments so one could be set up without city approval unless an ordinance is passed.
Lathrop said the proposed Des Moines ordinance would limit the number of potential encampments to one each 365 days and it could not last more than 92 days. The ordinance would require notice to nearby businesses or homes and hold a public meeting during the planning process.
Religious groups would have to apply 75 days before the encampment was to begin and notices sent out of nearby residences and businesses. Inhabitants of camps must have valid IDs and go through sex offender and warrant checks before they can stay.
Resident Kevin Isherwood wondered if the valid ID was the reason people in other areas are not allowed in encampments and Lathrop said there were no specific reasons in the data.
Could be near schools
The proposed ordinance did not have provisions banning homeless encampments near schools because most of the city’s churches would have not have been able to hold encampments, a violation of freedom of religion standards.
But Deputy Mayor Matt Pina, wanted camps to be banned within 1,000 feet of “an elementary or secondary school” despite freedom of religion concerns.
Mayor Kaplan had concerns because 17 of the 24 religious institutions in the city would be forbidden to have homeless encampments “and they may be the only ones who have the space to accommodate it.”
Pina said he understood the right of a religious organization to host the sites, but it was “our responsibility to ensure that the children in our community are safe.”
Councilmember Victor Pennington, who said the state law banning anyone under 18 at homeless encampments “makes a statement”, seconded the motion, adding the city should be proactive and not reactive.
“If we get challenged then we will defend it – they shoot us down? I don’t know,” Pennington said.
Councilmember Luisa Bangs asked what options do the 17 churches excluded have.
City Manager Tony Piasecki said, “Nothing, they can’t have them … if you include this buffer, then these 17 cannot (have a homeless encampment.”
The Council voted 4 to 2 to add the 1000-foot ban, with Kaplan and Bangs voting no.
Resident Mary Eun, said she watched the recording of the Oct. 29 meeting and “the first thing that happened was to cut off Rick Johnson because he was talking too long.
“I just thought there needs to be a process improvement.”
Eun said there was nothing at the public podium to show the time elapsed and suggested systems that many organizations use to keep speakers aware of time limits, “graceful, non-offensive ways to give people a warning.”
“What I saw in last week’s recording was very offensive,” she said, adding that Johnson and others have been pressing their cases to the Council.
“They have not disappeared and they won’t disappear,” Eun said, adding that four minutes was given to another speaker later on.
She asked which member of the Council would be he first to apologize to Johnson, no one did.
Kaplan said he agreed there could be a better way to warn people that their time was up, maybe a clock on the speakers lectern.
“So that it is not so offensive to the folks who are doing what you want your citizens to do in voicing what is going on and bringing awareness…
Furlough list needed
Kevin Isherwood said he wanted to clarify his suggestion the week before about a city employee furlough. There should be a list of “truly essential employees, those charged with the safety and security of the city” and if there is not a list, Isherwood said there should be.
He said bargaining units should realize that “something is better than nothing and if we continue on the path that we are going as demonstrated at the last meeting on the budget, we are going to be bankrupt and no one’s going to have a job.”
Isherwood said Councilmember Sheckler has been leaving after public comments and before the budget is discussed.
“What I want to know is if he feels comfortable voting on an agenda item as important as the budget when he’s not been part of the public discussions on that topic,” Isherwood said.
Judge’s Court Report
Des Moines Municipal Court Judge Lisa Leone gave her first report after taking office last May.
She said she planned to build a model court which means increasing access to the court without having to come into the to the courtroom by finding and filing items on line. People will be able in some cases to file statements and photos on line and receive a letter of the judge’s decision.
Judge Leone said she goes into the community to talk with groups about what the court is and how it works.
“It is important that it be transparent and accountable which I and the court will try to be at all times,” Leone said.
Caseload trends show a downward trend beginning in 2012 for both criminal and civil infractions, Leone said.
Criminal cases fluctuate over time due to economic conditions, crime rates, police staffing changes, populations and changes in laws. The judge said there have been more criminal trials of late and with the addition of police officers she expects and increase in demands for trials.
She said she has had a number of calls from officers in Des Moines and in Normandy Park for warrants, noting that the officers of both cities had “done an incredibly professional job.”
Boardwalk next summer
Transportation Engineer Andrew Merges said it is hoped to get the Redondo Boardwalk in operation next summer and the storm damage a year ago. The repair design has been nearly completed and pending some final decisions and permits before starting construction. The boardwalk will become one of color-stained concrete to look like boards.
He said the cabling and posts will be stainless steel so it doesn’t rust and break, but also to lessen the danger from logs impacting the walk supports.
There will also be low level lighting at deck level.]]>