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Council, public inquiry into Tent City policies underway

The Tent City post-mortem process has taken its first step forward. City Council members met with city employees to discuss the proposed process at a mini-planning session on June 20. A draft with Tent City post-mortem goals, objectives and a tentative outline was tweaked and approved during the special meeting. The main change, according to Councilmember Mike Cero, is that the city agreed to consider Island residents’ concerns and comments before moving forward with the process.

“We agreed to front-load input from [Tent City 4] neighbors before staff forwards a draft proposal on the post-mortem,” Cero said.

The post-mortem, in essence, is a formal review of Tent City 4’s three-month encampment on Mercer Island last year. The roving homeless camp, run by the organization SHARE/WHEEL, resided on United Methodist Church property in the First Hill neighborhood last August through October. Because the city did not have existing permits to allow for such a set-up, it granted SHARE/WHEEL and the United Methodist Church a temporary use agreement to host the camp. This angered many Island citizens, in particular those who lived adjacent to Tent City 4.

A civic organization named Citizens for Fair Process filed a lawsuit against the city for its “illegal” creation of a temporary use agreement, citing that the public was not properly informed of the motion. The citizens’ case failed in King County Superior Court twice. The group has since filed an appeal.

Meanwhile, the city has promised to conduct a formal review of Tent City 4’s Mercer Island stay. The review will examine the 2008 Tent City process as well as develop a rubric for the future, as Tent City may apply to stay with another church organization on Mercer Island in coming years.

“Tent City has a constitutional right to be housed on church property. We don’t have the right to say no, so we need to develop an ordinance,” City Manager Rich Conrad explained.

According to a memorandum on the Tent City post-mortem process distributed to Councilmembers at the June 20 planning session, “The purpose of the review is to develop a comprehensive record of Mercer Island’s experience with hosting Tent City within the community. The record would include the things that went well and the lessons that were learned so that there will be useful information for decision-making should Tent City be invited back to Mercer Island in the future.”

In order to create a “comprehensive record,” the City Council agreed that all key stakeholders in the issue, such as Island churches, First Hill residents, city officers, SHARE/WHEEL and Tent City residents themselves, should have ample input.

Thus, the Council has asked that city members hold forums with the public this month and collect as much testimony and opinion as possible, given time restraints. The leader of this initiative is interim Parks and Recreation Director Manny O’Compo, who was elected as Tent City post-mortem facilitator. Attorney Katie Knight and Conrad will also actively contribute to the process. Once a draft ordinance is developed, the team will present it to the public and open it up for comment.

The city hopes to conclude its public inquiry by early August and begin a written report by fall, thus allowing the entire post-mortem process to close by December 2009. Although no serious plans have been acknowledged, there is a chance that Tent City 4 could return to Mercer Island in 2010. Thus, the imperative to complete the post-mortem process and establish a framework for hosting Tent City on Mercer Island by the end of 2009 is clear.

“The best scenario is that we have the post-mortem done in December,” Cero said. “What we want to avoid is people planning Tent City on MI, while the process is not finished.”

The Tent City post-mortem process is open to the public. The City Council will announce developments in the process and discuss draft reports in public meetings over the coming months.

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