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Mercer Island Council approves ‘Tent City’ ordinance

The City Council and city staff reviewed and discussed 19 specific points in the draft Temporary Encampment Ordinance at its annual planning session on Jan. 24, before a 5-2 vote on Feb. 1 approved the ordinance.

Councilmembers Mike Cero and Mike Grady voted against the ordinance.

“I voted against the ordinance because I wanted our police department to be in the loop for assuring that Tent City residents did not have warrants or were not sex offenders, to ensure safety,” said Cero. “It’s important to recognize the regulation was drawn up for any temporary encampment, not just Tent City 4.”

The agenda item was in response to requests from the public and City Council members to fine-tune sections of the ordinance, which sets city regulations for Tent City 4, a traveling homeless camp put on by the nonprofit organization SHARE/WHEEL, and other “encampments” that choose to stay on the Island.

The ordinance was presented to Councilmembers for its first reading on Jan. 19. Several residents of Tent City 4 attended the meeting and voiced concerns with a number of stipulations under the ordinance, most of which were deemed too regulatory. Others suggested that many of the stipulations were not strict enough; in particular, rules on identity checks for Tent City residents.

After discussing all of the points brought up, the City Council sent the ordinance back to the city for editing.

Councilmembers had a chance to look over the edited version on Jan. 23 at their annual planning session. In total, 19 specific points were examined, many of which were changed.

The first change made to the document was within its “whereas” section, which aims to set the parameters and intention of the ordinance. Local statistics on homelessness were added to this section to provide a better picture of the societal problem.

“Whereas the Committee to End Homelessness in King County estimates 8,000 people are homeless in King County each night” and “Whereas the Committee to End Homelessness in King County’s plan neither promotes nor disapproves of tent cities. Rather it acknowledges that tent cities are an emergency response to a greater problem of homelessness in King County and a safer alternative to life on the streets,” were both approved of by Councilmembers and added to the ordinance. Two sentences on statistics about the number of homeless people listed as sex offenders and the number who have mental illness were voted off the draft list, as it was generally agreed that the language painted a “stigmatized” picture and lacked purpose.

“I don’t understand what the purpose of these two statements is,” said Councilmember Mike Grady. “You’re starting to paint a picture that this is a group that we don’t like. We don’t want intent that sets up to stigmatize a subset of the population that we’re trying to protect.”

Under the draft ordinance’s “general regulations” section, there were a number of new sentences proposed by City Staff.

The first regulation that City Councilmembers discussed was the document’s definition of “a place of worship.” The question of what constitutes a “place of worship” was raised. If a church, for instance, leases another property on the Island, can this be used to host Tent City?

George Steirer, the city’s principal, said that in such a situation, the church would have to apply for a conditional use permit.

In the end, Councilmembers agreed on the following statement: “If the place of worship is not actively practicing on the site proposed for a temporary encampment then [it] must comply with all other permit requirements for the underlying zone required for siting a new place of worship and temporary encampment.”

A stipulation stating that “no temporary encampment shall occupy or use public parks in any manner unless specifically approved by the Parks Department” was deleted from the draft, as it was unnecessary.

During the Jan. 19 council meeting, a member of Tent City 4 asked Councilmembers to change the law restricting the camp’s stay to “90 consecutive days” to allow for residents to who may be at work on the 90th day to have the weekend to leave. Councilmembers understood this concern and the city added the following language to the stipulation: “except that the code official may allow five additional days to accommodate moving on a weekend.”

The most debated subject was whether temporary encampment residents should be required to provide government issued identification or a “verifiable form of identification” when signing into the camp.

Residents argued that not all of their members have government IDs, so this law would restrict some needy people from seeking shelter at Tent City. However, many Islanders feel that government issued IDs are the only acceptable form.

Council discussion reflected both sides of the argument.

“We’re here to provide a mutual means that protects the health, safety and welfare of our community and [Tent City residents]. A verifiable ID has to be an ID that King County can run health and sex offender warranty checks with,” said City Attorney Katie Knight.

Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes stated that it would make little difference to Island police officers monitoring safety whether or not the IDs were government issued or “verifiable” as defined by Knight.

“You can have government issued ID in here, but fourth amendment of the Constitution limits sex-offender random checks. I can’t ask for government issued identification. I’m hoping that I can verify that this name’s been run,” he said. “I have very clear limits on what I can do as far as search and seizure laws go.”

With this knowledge, the City Council voted to accept the qualification of “verifiable” IDs in place of government issued identification.

The ordinance’s rules on warrant checks also raised significant discussion. Holmes reiterated that Island police cannot legally conduct random warrant checks among Tent City members. According to the Constitution, police can only be “reactive” to problems that arise on the premises.

Currently, the ordinance states that the “temporary encampment sponsor and managing organization shall obtain warrant and sex offender checks from the King County Sheriff’s office or other relevant authority for all current camp residents within the seven days prior to moving to Mercer Island.”

If any residents are found to have active warrants, the Mercer Island Police are to be contacted immediately.

The City Council voted to add a regulation on smoking to the ordinance, allowing residents to smoke in a “designated section” that does not interfere with the clean air of neighbors. This move was in response to a First Hill neighbor’s complaint about smoke drifting into his yard. Councilmembers also discussed the importance of the applicant conducting an “informal public meeting to inform citizens” about the proposed camp before the organization applies for a stay.

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