Mercer Island Council sends Tent City rules back for final changes
By ELIZABETH CELMS
Mercer Island Reporter Contributor
January 26, 2010 · Updated 2:18 PM
Last Tuesday’s City Council meeting was a long one.
At the top of the agenda: the much-disputed and long-awaited Temporary Encampment Ordinance, which dictates the legalities behind any temporary encampment — including Tent City 4, the roving homeless camp put on by the nonprofit organization SHARE/WHEEL which spent three months on Mercer Island in 2008 — planning to reside within city boundaries.
In addition to dozens of Island citizens, several residents of Tent City 4, currently being hosted by the First United Methodist Church in Bellevue, attended the packed Jan. 19 meeting.
Most of those who spoke were concerned with “overly restrictive” and “constitutionally questionable” stipulations in the ordinance, which was up for its first reading before Councilmembers. Such issues included: questions on warrant and sex offender checks by Mercer Island police; the requirement for all residents to provide government-issued identification; provisions on when residents may return to past sites in the Island; and the requirement that an application for residency must be submitted at least 90 days before moving in, among others.
“We have serious concerns with the ordinance,” said current Tent City 4 resident Bruce Thomas, citing the provision that “the city shall not grant a permit for a temporary encampment that is proposed to commence on a lot or lots within one-half mile of any lot(s) that contained a temporary encampment within the last 18 months.”
“You can’t do that,” Thomas said. “You can’t limit a church’s right to practice religion just because it’s close to another church.”
Citing the provision that “an application must be submitted at least 90 days prior to opening a temporary encampment,” Tent City 4 resident, who goes by the name Shy, argued that 90 days was an unreasonable amount of time.
“This seems a bit far in advance. It only takes 10 days to get the application done,” he said.
Others protested the fact that youth under age 18 are prohibited from spending the night at the site.
“Under extenuating circumstances, if mom or dad comes in with a child for shelter; we’d like to have them stay,” said Tent City 4 resident Jack Ackson.
Indeed, the Council felt that the residents’ concerns were legitimate. However, when developing the ordinance, city staff was asked to place a high priority on safety and security — reflecting Island residents’ main concern with the homeless camp.
“We feel that we’ve balanced [a church’s] constitutional right to freedom of expression with the public’s concern for safety,” said Adam Cooper, chair of the Tent City 4 planning commission. “Two large concerns were: one, Tent City resident identification. We agreed with public input that government-issued ID is not too onerous a form to conduct. The second concern is that [temporary encampments] could not return within 12 months to a site within one mile. We changed this to 18 months and a site within one-half of a mile so that churches next door to each other can host Tent City after one another.”
After hearing from Island residents — half of whom expressed support for Tent City 4, while the rest explained individual concerns regarding neighborhood disturbance and safety — and Tent City members, the City Council began thoroughly questioning the stipulations set forth in the draft ordinance.
“I was glad to hear someone bring the 90-day issue up. I think we can work with the number of days here,” said Councilmember Mike Grady. “And the random warrant and sex offender checks — this is a slippery slope that warrants more legal analysis. I’m not at all comfortable with that.”
Grady inquired about the requirement that “an applicant conduct an informal public meeting to inform citizens about a proposed temporary encampment.”
“Who facilitates this meeting and what role does the public have in this meeting?” He asked.
Councilmember Steve Litzow added to Grady’s comment.
“A very big issue with the last Tent City was that the public meetings were very chaotic, so I’d like more stringency on this,” he said.
After nearly three hours, Councilmembers voted to send the document back to city staff so that they may loosen several of the stipulations brought up during the Council meeting. Staff will return to the City Council with the edited draft ordinance on Feb. 1, when it will receive a second reading.
A full copy of the Temporary Encampments Ordinance can be downloaded from the City Council’s Jan. 19 agenda, available on the city Web site: www.mercergov.org. For a history of Tent City 4 on Mercer Island, visit the Reporter’s archive at www.mi-reporter.com.