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Subcommittee agrees to fewer changes to Sit/Lie Ordinance

Thursday, September 23, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Debate over changes to the city’s controversial Downtown No Sit/Lie Ordinance continued to rage at Tuesday’s meeting of the Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee, with supporters once again advocating for further medical exemptions to the ordinance and opponents warning against creating an unenforceable law.


Last month, Council Members Laura Morrison and Randi Shade joined Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez in voting to recommend allowing for more medical exemptions to the law that prohibits people from sitting or lying in pedestrian rights-of-way in the downtown area. On Tuesday they returned to hear from downtown stakeholder groups and the city’s legal department concerning those proposed changes.


At Tuesday’s meeting, Vince Cobalis, assistant director of human services at the Health and Human Services Department, told the subcommittee that a meeting held Sept. 15 with 25 downtown stakeholders – including the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Downtown Austin Community Court, the Austin Police Department, and neighborhood groups – yielded concerns that the proposed changes would make the ordinance unenforceable.


The proposed changes concern three subsections of the ordinance. The first would change the wording of the ordinance to allow people to sit or lie down not just “because of a medical emergency” but also “to prevent” one.


The second alteration concerns a section that states that the law does not apply to a person who, “as the result of a disability, uses a wheelchair or similar device to move about.” The members of the committee voted to clarify that the exemption applies to any person with a disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, not just people in wheelchairs.


The third alteration broadens a section of the ordinance that says that the law does not apply to a person who “is waiting in a line to purchase tickets to or attend a performance or public event” to include people waiting for goods and services, including at homeless shelters.


Cobalis said that stakeholders took issue with the first alteration, saying that the “prevention” of a medical emergency is too ambiguous a reason to give for sitting or lying. They also had problems with the second, saying that without a clearer definition of the word “disability,” enforcement would be impossible.


No opposition, however, was raised over the third proposed change, according to Cobalis.


At Tuesday’s meeting, those stakeholders expressed their reservations about those changes. Speaking first, Ted Hibler, president of the Austin Hotel and Lodging Association, told the subcommittee that his group opposed amending the ordinance on the grounds that doing so would bring about unintended consequences, particularly in the area of enforceability.   


A member of that organization’s board of directors, downtown Hilton Manager Leslie Pchola, said, “As hoteliers in the city, one of our jobs is to be ambassadors for the city of Austin and to make sure that guests that come here do get validated in the fact that they chose the right city to come to, to spend their money and experience Austin. And we do want them to do that in a safe manner.”


Josh Allen, executive director of the 6th Street Austin Association and a board member of the Downtown Austin Alliance, agreed. “We want a walkable, liveable downtown,” he said, “and our sidewalks need to be clean, our environment needs to be safe, and people need to perceive that they can live, work, and play here 24 hours a day. This cumbersome, vague language makes the law unenforceable.”


But representatives from advocacy group House the Homeless argued that putting a list of the 18 proposed medical exemptions on a 3×5 card for police officers to carry with them would prevent the law from being too cumbersome and would allow for easy enforceability.


“We all want clean and safe streets,” said one House the Homeless spokesperson, “but let’s do it by giving liveable wages and affordable housing, not by criminalizing people for sitting down when they have to.”


In the end, the proposed change that would allow people to sit or lie down in order to prevent a medical emergency proved to be the area of greatest debate, with members of the homeless-advocacy community arguing for the change as an act of “human concern” and the APD claiming that the broadness of the term would render the ordinance toothless.


Police Chief Art Acevedo told the subcommittee, “We believe we would be gutting the ordinance (by adding the term “prevent”). Amend that first section, on preventing, and we effectively wouldn’t have a sit/lie ordinance.” He said that

enforceability in terms of preventing a medical emergency would be “too broad.”


The subcommittee agreed, voting unanimously to recommend to the full Council the changes to the subsections on the definition of “disability” and the legality of sitting while waiting in line for goods and services but leaving the “because of a medical emergency” component unaltered.


“If you have a disability you should be exempted from the ordinance,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez.

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