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Mercer Island clergy wants changes to city’s new Tent City ordinance

The Mercer Island Clergy Association is not happy about the Temporary Encampment Ordinance that passed with City Council approval on Feb. 1. The association has several issues with the 10-page document. The greatest point of contention has to do with a recent amendment to section 2.A.20 regarding warrant checks.

According to the subsection, every organization that manages a temporary encampment on Mercer Island must obtain warrant and sex offender checks with King County for its residents.

This has been a practice that Tent City 4, which is managed by SHARE/WHEEL, has followed diligently, including when the roving homeless camp stayed at the United Methodist Church on First Hill in 2008. Yet this is not what has angered the MI Clergy Association. It is a subsequent sentence, added to the ordinance during the City Council’s January planning session, that has the Island’s religious leaders up in ire: “The temporary encampment sponsor shall be responsible for verifying that the warrant and sex offender checks occur.”

“We view this as unconstitutional,” said clergy member Susan Wanwig, a reverend at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. “Although the [warrant check] system is being done by Tent City anyway, we have a problem with it being mandated by the city. The police department cannot constitutionally run these checks. And now the city is asking churches to act as an agent of the government on their behalf.”

Clergy Association President Mark Travis agrees. Religious organizations that choose to host Tent City should not have the responsibility to monitor whether or not the camp’s residents have cleared sex offender and warrant checks, he emphasized. Just as police officers, barred by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, cannot randomly ask Island residents to procure documents exonerating them of a criminal past, a religious organization cannot demand that the residents of Tent City be checked and cleared, Travis pointed out.

“The chief of police says he cannot legally do these checks, and now the city is passing the buck and saying that Tent City and the Clergy Association will have to illegally do these warrant checks,” Travis said.

Yet the city does not see it this way.

City Attorney Katie Knight explained that the controversial stipulation does not legally bind religious organizations to monitoring whether or not Tent City residents have been “checked.”

“It’s not making them an agent of government. They have the misimpression that we’re requiring them to run the checks themselves. We’re not saying that,” she said.

What the city is saying is that the temporary encampment sponsor is responsible for verifying that the residents have complied with all encampment rules.

“The Council understands that, essentially, [the sponsor] is responsible for just checking; Do you guys have a resident’s log? Are you checking for warrants? That’s it,” Knight explained.

The city attorney emphasized that staff members are still working with the MI Clergy Association to resolve dissatisfaction over the ordinance.

“We’re talking with them. We’re trying to help them understand what it means,” she said.

Last week, the Clergy Association wrote a two-page letter to Mayor Jim Pearman and the City Council detailing the reasons why it wouldn’t stand for the approved ordinance. A copy of the letter was submitted to the Reporter for publication.

“In the introductory paragraphs of the proposed ordinance, you acknowledge our constitutional rights to do our ministry with the homeless, but in the details of the ordinance we believe that the city denies us those same rights if it were to be enacted,” the letter reads. “We know Mercer Island to be a compassionate, generous, open-hearted place. Yet, we are embarrassed that our government would pass an ordinance that is the most stringent of any community in King County.”

Travis has since recalled the letter, which was signed by 12 clergy members, saying that the association wants more time to discuss the matter with the city before going public with its opinion. The association hopes that the city will bring the Temporary Encampment Ordinance back onto the table and change the stipulation regarding warrant checks.

Knight, however, says this is not a realistic expectation, as the ordinance has already been approved.

“Our rules usually prohibit an agenda item from going back onto the table,” the attorney said. “[Regulation A.20] is in the ordinance now. The frustrating thing is that the [Clergy Association] has been invited and noticed on every single public meeting that we’ve had on the ordinance. To wait until the eleventh hour makes it really difficult for the City Council.”

Travis said that if a solution cannot be found regarding the “unconstitutional” mandate that holds Tent City hosts responsible for ensuring that it follows through with sex offender and warrant checks, then the association will take legal action.

“We want to work with the mayor and Councilmen to clean this up. But if they’re not willing to clean this up, we will have to take other steps,” he said.

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