ashland.news
July 24, 2024

Ashland City Council approves camping ordinance in split vote

Members of the public raise their hands to express agreement with a speaker's public comment at the City Council's meeting on Dec. 5, 2023. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news
December 7, 2023

Revised rules about who can camp where when must pass second vote before taking effect

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

On a 4-2 vote, the Ashland City Council on Tuesday approved the first of two required readings of an ordinance to control time, place and manner of camping in Ashland. 

Council chambers was packed to capacity with residents waiting to comment as Acting City Attorney Doug McGeary and Deputy City Attorney Carmel Zahran explained why the city was pursuing the ordinance and what it would do. 

The ordinance will control occupation of public spaces and enforce behavior, rather than status, and does not seek to punish those who are homeless, McGeary said. Mayor Tonya Graham had to remind the audience to be silent when his statement was met with a swell of sarcastic laughter.  

Councilor Bob Kaplan asked for a definition of the ordinance’s repeated use of the words “time, place and manner.” 

“‘Time, place and manner’ comes from the federal interpretation of the Constitution. … It applies to your civil rights, any regulation of your civil rights has to fit with time, place and manner,” McGeary said. 

If approved in a second reading, the ordinance would control place by prohibiting camping under any circumstances in specified locations, such as 100 yards from rivers or streams, within 250 feet from childcare facilities or schools, anywhere in Lithia Park or parks with playgrounds, or the city’s Central Bike Path. 

The ordinance would control time by limiting occupation of spaces like public benches or “street furniture” to two hours. It would control manner by limiting the way a person can occupy any public space to 50 square feet. The ordinance would also allow the city to dispose of property collected when clearing camps if it is determined not to have “intrinsic value or utility.”

Ashland City Councilors discuss the proposed new camping ordinance at their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 5. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

The ordinance includes a provision to allow the city manager to make exceptions in emergencies. 

“We’re talking about human condition, and life — there are sometimes scenarios that come up that you wouldn’t even think of, that would be reasonable, that you would want to change your policy for. … This is a big balancing act,” Zahran said. 

Kaplan asked for further explanation of the ordinance’s term “involuntarily homeless.”  Graham asked if the term could be removed. 

In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court decision Martin v. Boise ruled that under previous legal precedent and the Eighth Amendment in the Bill of Rights — a protection against cruel and unusual punishment — cities are limited in how they can prohibit sitting, sleeping or lying down in public spaces because, for those who have nowhere else to go, they are simply performing a “universal and unavoidable consequences of being human,” according to information provided with the city’s ordinance. The state cannot legally punish someone for an unavoidable act or status.

This court decision has compelled cities under its jurisdiction to rewrite their camping ordinances, McGeary said. Particularly with defining the ambiguous idea of “involuntarily homeless,” a term pulled from Blake v. City of Grants Pass decision a challenge to the Grants Pass camping ordinance in 2022 where the court decided against the city. 

Ashland will have a better chance of defending its camping ordinance in court through including the definition “involuntarily homeless,” McGeary said. Then the city could argue it is limiting where someone can camp but only punishing those who are occupying public spaces when they have alternative shelter. 

“Every single city in the Ninth Circuit is going through this right now. Every city is coming up with new different kinds of ordinances to make sure that they’re in compliance. … Those are all experiments that each of these cities are doing — this is one — and we’re patterning ourselves after each other and doing the best we can,” McGeary said. 

Of the 14 residents who signed up to give public comment, three spoke in favor of the ordinance while the remainder disagreed with the assessment that the ordinance is the best the city can do. 

“I have only two words for this ordinance: cruel and dehumanizing. … the only proven solution to homelessness is housing. … instead of implementing these proven practices, Ashland is choosing cruel laws that only make life harder for our most vulnerable community members,” said Ainsley Herrick, a minister and employee of the Ashland Public Library. 

“This is intolerant for a free-thinking people. Would it be too much to perceive each free-thinking member of our houseless community as an individual, a divine child of God, if not mandated by our creator but to be seen for his or her own intrinsic value?” said Heron Boyce.

Members of the public offer comment at the City Council’s meeting on Dec. 5, 2023. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

Dennis Slattery, former Ashland city councilor and current president of the board of the nonprofit Opportunities for Housing, Resources and Assistance (OHRA), offered public comment as a private individual and urged council to wait and develop an ordinance through a more collaborative process. 

When Trina Sanford began to state her support for the ordinance as a business owner in south Ashland, Graham interrupted her to remind the crowd “hand motions are only for things you support,” and to be respectful to everyone who approached the microphones. Hands waved in response to her. 

“Well, I had more to say but I’m going to end my statement. I can only assume what happened behind me, gestures that are not so kind. Probably the reason why I’m supporting this ordinance. Because it’s the same behavior I’ve experienced in my community after I’ve cleaned up filth, needles, poop. … That’s why I’m here and that’s why I support the approval of this ordinance,” she said before leaving the microphone and council chamber. 

Councilors Bob Kaplan and Eric Hansen voted against, while Councilors Paula Hyatt, Gina DuQuenne, Dylan Bloom and Jeff Dahle voted in favor of the ordinance. 

Hyatt offered an additional motion to send the ordinance to the Housing and Human Services Committee for their review with a six month deadline. The motion passed unanimously. 

With less than 10 minutes left to the end of the meeting, Public Works Director Scott Fleury presented the purchase of wastewater membranes at a cost of nearly $1.5 million and right of way adjustments for Fair Oaks Avenue and Fern Street. The right of way changes will cost the city only in staff time and the water membrane purchase can be supported by existing Public Works funds, Fleury said. 

Council approved all three unanimously. Other agenda items were not completed due to time spent in public comment. 

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

Dec. 8: Photo caption corrected. Public commenters were speaking on 5G, not the camping ordinance.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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