Assembly limits sidewalk sitting in downtown Anchorage

YOU CAN'T RECLINE, EITHER: The Assembly votes 7-4 to pass law.

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 23, 2011 

The Anchorage Assembly, after hearing from a stream of people opposed to restricting the right to sit on downtown sidewalks, passed a new law that does just that Tuesday night.

The law, effective Dec. 22, makes it illegal to sit or recline on downtown sidewalks from 6 a.m. to midnight weekdays and until 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, with some exceptions such as for medical emergencies.

The penalty: up to a $100 fine.

The law also makes it a crime to intentionally obstruct either pedestrian or vehicle traffic, makes it illegal to panhandle after dark anywhere in town and makes it illegal to panhandle downtown, period.

It passed on a 7-4 vote, with Harriet Drummond, Paul Honeman, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Patrick Flynn opposed. In favor were Chris Birch, Dick Traini, Jennifer Johnston, Debbie Ossiander, Ernie Hall, Adam Trombley and Bill Starr.

The idea for the law came as city administrators were looking for a way to deal with a homeless protester who sat and reclined on the city hall block or across the street for weeks on end, ending his vigil only this month. Officials realized there was no law against it, city attorney Dennis Wheeler has said. John Martin, the homeless man whose sidewalk protests led Mayor Dan Sullivan to push for the law, has said he was protesting city homeless policies. He told the Assembly Tuesday night that he is done with his protest.

But meantime, the "occupy" movement has swept the country and a small group of Occupy Anchorage protestors set up on the edge of Town Square Park across from City Hall.

They began moving to the Delaney Park Strip at 10th Avenue and I Street on Monday, said city officials, though a canopy and a few people were still in Town Square Wednesday. The city told members of the group that the Anchorage Downtown Partnership has a permit to use Town Square Friday for a tree-lighting ceremony, Wheeler said.

John Heuerman, a protester in Town Square Wednesday, said the group will maintain a presence in both spots. The move to the Park Strip is "a compromise" with the city, he said.

The city's working with the occupiers to get a permit for them to stay nights in the Park Strip, said Wheeler. Overnighting is against park rules without a permit.

Parks director John Rodda said it's difficult to come to terms with Occupy Anchorage because the group isn't organized and city officials get different responses from different members.

Police Chief Mark Mew, responding to an Assembly member's question Tuesday night, said how the new city law affects the Occupy group "would depend on what they do and when and where they do it. And whether or not they have a permit."

"I can see scenarios where they could get by doing very much what they're doing right now and not run afoul of this new ordinance at all."

"Every law has discretion about when you would enforce it," Mew said. "I don't think we would use it frequently ... I view it as a last resort."

Mew said police officers ask for people's cooperation first.

Those who testified against the sidewalk ordinance, some of whom wore pink "Occupy Anchorage" T-shirts, mostly argued the law is unnecessary and abridges the constitutional freedom to assemble.

"This law protects people the way the Mafia protects people," said Geoff Kennedy. "I don't need protection from a guy sitting on a sidewalk or carrying a sign."

Matthew Moll, another person testifying, asked, "Why are we even talking about it? ... It seems very small, petty even."

Honeman, who is running for mayor, agreed with the opponents who spoke. "This law, I believe, is a turkey. ... This law won't do a damn thing."

Mayor Sullivan talked about what his administration has done for homeless people -- instituting a cold weather plan in which churches take overflow from shelters, for one thing -- and said other progressive West Coast cities such as Portland and Seattle have no-sitting-on-sidewalk laws because it's become a problem.

Assemblyman Birch said, "For me, this is an issue of public safety. ... It's not reasonable to have someone sitting or lying on a sidewalk."


Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

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