This week, on as "Seattle City Hall Turns," we find a previously underwhelming Mayor Mike McGinn locked in a battle with wannabe mayor, Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess over a new Seattle ordinance its opponents say unfairly targets panhandlers.
The saga began months ago when Burgess introduced the ordinance as a measure to improve public safety in Downtown Seattle. He said the new provisions were perfectly reasonable as they called for putting an end to so-called intimidation by aggressive people. He said vital tourist dollars were at stake, as if Seattle has a reputation for aggressive panhandlers.The opposition pounced, including the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which issued a damning 15-page report and a unanimous vote against Burgess' plan. They outlined a laundry list of potential human rights violations against homeless persons and attacked the credibility of the data used to bolster Burgess' proposal.For example: "Under the ordinance, an individual is liable for a civil infraction for aggressive solicitation. The individual must appear in court to object to the infraction or pay a $50 fine within 15 days.
"This is a human rights concern because homeless and poor individuals are less likely to be able to appear in court. Also, because there is no right to counsel for civil infractions, poor people who appear in court will not have a lawyer appointed to represent them to challenge the factual basis of the citation.
"If the individual does not appear or pay the fine, he or she is subject to a criminal charge of failure-to-appear. This is a human rights concern because vulnerable populations - including those experiencing homelessness, mental health needs, chemical dependency or low-incomes - are disproportionately more likely not to appear in court or pay the fine and, thus, are more likely to find themselves facing a failure-to-respond charge, which is a criminal misdemeanor.
"A criminal record poses barriers for obtaining employment, housing and access to other services, which will likely have disparate racial impacts."
The list of human rights concerns goes on and on. But the City Council is ignoring them.Homeless advocate and head of Seattle's Real Change organization Tim Harris pointed out in a recent op-ed that, "Burgess routinely compares his law to Tacoma's and says they have virtually eliminated panhandling without ever writing a single ticket. This is offered as evidence that the desperately poor won't really be issued the $50 citations that the law creates or be jailed when those tickets are ignored. As it turns out, cops in Tacoma do write tickets, and while less visible in commercial areas, poor people still panhandle."
So the anecdotal evidence is also shifty, but the council is ignoring that, too, instead aligning themselves behind Burgess' political aspirations and special interest relationships.
A good move
Late last week, it was confirmed the council has the votes needed to pass the measure. This is where McGinn has stepped in.
He initially said he would veto the measure if the council vote was 5-4. However, on Sunday, he said even if council had the six votes to reverse a veto, he'd go ahead with it anyway, forcing them to take a second vote.
The mayor has said he doesn't think the anti-aggressive panhandling measure is good legislation, and he wants to make his position clear. He also said he hopes taking this action will give time for some council members to change their minds and vote against it.
In need of
Personally, I was against the proposed measure.
While many characterize it as an opportunity to enforce civility, I see it as an opportunity to criminalize people who aren't part of the status quo, to penalize people whose mere presence leaves those who are the status quo uncomfortable.
I think it is absolutely shameful so many in Seattle lack the compassion, foresight or moral compass to support the needs of the homeless with effective policy or law. If we don't want them to be in the position to have to ask strangers for help, then perhaps we as a community should start providing adequately for their needs.
In a moment of true must-see television earlier this week, the measure slipped by with a vote of 5-4. Now it heads to the mayor, who has assured advocates he will veto it.
Two thumbs up to the mayor for standing on the right side of the issue. Now, it's up to you. Should we criminalize homelessness or work to finally bring authentic solutions into fruition?
Sable Verity provides social commentary for theFreshXpress.com: The Pulse of Young Black America, KBCS Radio and many other outlets.[[In-content Ad]]