We have to concede a sense of uneasiness when a local government body attempts to regulate who can stand in roadway medians, particularly when the new limitations clearly are aimed at a particular message.
But when that message is part of a set of problems accompanied by unacceptable and sometimes criminal behavior, then such a move becomes a case of the greater good.
Which explains why the Santa Cruz City Council, long criticized for failing to get a handle on panhandling and other issues related to the city’s large transient population, is moving decisively to make long-needed changes in what officials and residents are willing to put up with.
The council Tuesday approved two new rules aimed at cutting down on panhandling, public drunkenness and other obnoxious behaviors that have long bedeviled the city and gained it an unwanted and unnecessary reputation as a sanctuary for transients and drug users.
By a 5-2 vote, with councilmen Don Lane and Micah Posner dissenting, the council approved a measure banning people from poaching on roadway median strips and roundabouts. Lane, Posner and homeless advocates said the measure is an invasion of free speech rights and clearly aimed at the city’s homeless. Clearly, though, it wasn’t aimed at people advocating political candidates or positions, but at the ever-present panhandlers.
The council also, and unanimously, approved another rule allowing park officials to ban for 24 hours any person who gets a citation or is arrested for breaking the law at a city beach or open space. Those who refuse to comply will be charged with a misdemeanor.
Posner, however, opposed a related rule also making it a misdemeanor to interfere with a city parks or maintenance employee — or threaten or bother anyone on a beach or park through their conduct or foul language.
Councilwoman Cynthia Mathews correctly described the rule as a “common sense” approach to keep city employees from having to put up with “untenable behavior” — while making beaches and parks safer for families and the vast majority of local residents.
In another sign the city is embarking on a significant new direction, the 15-citizen Public Safety Task Force gathered for its second meeting Wednesday night. The task force was appointed by the City Council after it became apparent recent outbreaks of violence, drugs and discarded needles and illegal campsites had reached the tipping point. Task force members heard Wednesday from city officials about multiple problems caused by transients such as illegal camps, drug use, garbage and litter and property damages. Among the reports:
- Mary Arman of the Public Works Department said her staff is constantly cleaning up human waste and trash and routinely replaces broken or vandalized signs, fences and lights. They’re also trying to find ways to prevent transients from taking over the public restrooms in the downtown parking garages.
- Parks chief Mauro Garcia said at least 25 percent of his staff’s time is spent dealing with public safety issues — transients and drug use — at parks and beaches.
- Police Chief Kevin Vogel said 911 calls increased 15 percent in 2012 from the year before. The Sentinel has reported Santa Cruz has the dubious distinction of logging more property crimes per capita than any other city in California.
No local issue so inflames, or provokes, public debate like this one. And while many Santa Cruz residents want to help homeless people, the city’s longstanding tolerance and compassion has limits. The city and the task force have their work cut out for them, but so far, their determination to take on difficult issues should be applauded.
This post will be the Sentinel Editorial for May 31, 2013