2 Assembly members flip sides on no-sidewalk-sitting law

Rosemary Shinohara

Two Anchorage Assembly members who voted for the mayor's no-sitting-on-sidewalks law last year, Debbie Ossiander and Dick Traini, are now trying to repeal the provision.

The law, approved Nov. 22, makes it illegal to sit or lie on downtown sidewalks from 6 a.m. to midnight weekdays and through 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights. There are exceptions, such as for medical emergencies or while waiting at a bus stop.

It was controversial from the get-go, and a group of people staged a protest in front of City Hall along Sixth Avenue the day the new law went into effect, Dec. 22.

"I just think it was the wrong decision," Ossiander said. "It bugged me. I want to fix it."

The law passed the Assembly on a vote of 7-4, with Ossiander and Traini in favor of it. If just these two Assembly members change sides, the repeal would pass on a 6-5 vote. It could still be vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan.

Sullivan, who championed the law, said Ossiander and Traini switching sides "is a little bizarre, given their previous support and the fact that it is working just fine. I don't know why they're being schizophrenic about it."

Police say they have no record of any citations being handed out under the law.

But Sullivan said before issuing a citations, police ask people to move along, and that works.

"This has been well-vetted in city after city," Sullivan said, "including some of the most progressive cities in the country."

Seattle has such a law, and Berkeley, Calif., just passed one, the mayor said.

Sullivan pushed for the law in Anchorage after a homeless man and convicted sex offender staged a protest last summer and fall, sitting, standing or lying on the City Hall sidewalk or across the street for weeks at a time. The man, John Martin, said he was protesting the mayor's homeless policies.

City officials said they realized the city had no law against such activity, so they researched what other cities have done and wrote up the proposed law.

Despite the law, Martin sometimes still sits on the City Hall sidewalk. He was spotted there this week with several other people and a sign that said, "Jesus is pissed."

Martin's periodic stays on the sidewalk are OK, Sullivan said.

"He can have a little time out there for his protests," Sullivan said. "When he's asked to move on, he does."

A cardboard encampment on a long-term basis, such as Martin set up last year, is not OK, the mayor said.

The sitting-on-sidewalks ordinance also made it a crime to intentionally obstruct pedestrian or vehicle traffic, to panhandle downtown, and to panhandle after dark anywhere in town.

Traini and Ossiander said they are only trying to get rid of the prohibition against sitting or lying on sidewalks, not the rest of the ordinance.

They introduced their proposal to repeal the sidewalk section at Tuesday's Assembly meeting.

It will be up for a public hearing at the Assembly Sept. 11, but the Assembly debate and vote will be postponed until the Sept. 25 meeting, Assembly chairman Ernie Hall said Wednesday.

People will also be able to testify on it Sept. 25, Hall said.

The Assembly will hold a work session on the topic at 10 a.m. Sept. 14 at City Hall.

Ossiander thinks the law is unenforceable. And that there doesn't seem to be a significant problem with sidewalk-sitters in downtown Anchorage.

"The sidewalks belong to everybody," Traini said.

Traini tried to get the Assembly to rescind the ordinance on Dec. 13, a few weeks after it passed, but the Assembly voted 8-3 not to rescind it.

Traini said he supported the no-sitting-on-sidewalks provision in the first place because on the night of the debate, he thought the ACLU, which protects civil liberties, was OK with the proposal. That later turned out to be based on a miscommunication.

Local representatives of the ACLU have since said they have concerns about the law.

"If it's going to be repealed, I think that's an advisable course of action," said Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU executive director.

Mittman did not want to talk this week about any specific concerns the ACLU has with it.

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

Anchorage Daily News