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Mayor vetoes repeal of law prohibiting sidewalk sitting

Rosemary Shinohara

Mayor Dan Sullivan Thursday vetoed an Anchorage Assembly decision that would have thrown out restrictions added last year on sitting on downtown sidewalks.

In his veto message, Sullivan said his goal in introducing sidewalk restrictions in the first place "was to ensure pedestrians can safely move about our vibrant downtown and not have to navigate sidewalks occupied by large cardboard boxes, personal belongings, mounds of trash and people sleeping."

"My goal is not, and has never been, to impede the right of free speech."

The Assembly voted 7-4 Tuesday to repeal the section of a law passed in November that makes it illegal to sit or lie on downtown sidewalks, except in certain situations.

The no-sitting-or-reclining provisions are in effect from 6 a.m. to midnight weekdays, and until 2:30 a.m. weekends.

There are a number of circumstances cited in the law under which it is legal to sit on a downtown sidewalk, for example, in a medical emergency, or while waiting to buy something from a street vendor.

Sullivan said at an Assembly work session earlier this month that police have issued no citations under the law, but police have asked people to move along, and that does the job.

To overturn the mayor's veto, the Assembly would need eight votes. Assemblyman Dick Traini, who co-sponsored the effort to repeal the no-sitting provision, said he's not sure whether he'll move to override the veto.

"I'm going to take a close look at it," he said. "I'll let you know."

Some opponents of the no-sitting provisions say it's a free speech issue.

Sullivan said the law is targeted at conduct, not speech.

His veto message said:

"People may exercise their right to free speech in many ways, including 'sit-ins' in the parks and on sidewalks outside of downtown, and participate in marches, parades and protests in and along our roads and sidewalks. If they get a permit so there is a safety plan in place, they can even take over and sit or lay down on downtown sidewalks."

He said many other cities have similar laws, including Berkeley and San Francisco.

Sullivan raised the issue of regulating sidewalk-sitting last year after a homeless man, who is also a convicted sex offender, essentially camped on sidewalks around city hall for months at a time. The man, John Martin, said he was protesting the mayor's homeless policies.

Sullivan said the sidewalk ordinance was not an attack on the homeless.

"I have made a huge commitment to providing services for homeless people, while protecting our public spaces for the benefit of all our residents," he said.

He also said deaths of homeless people "have dropped dramatically under my administration."

In 2009, the year Sullivan was elected, there were 15 outdoor deaths of natural causes, police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker said. The next year, in 2010, there were 13. In 2011 there were six, and this year so far two people have died outdoors, Parker said.

Parker said the city has been more aggressive about getting homeless people out of the woods and into shelters.

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


By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
Anchorage Daily News