Downtown business owners, police and Missoula City Council members hashed out last-minute changes to the contentious pedestrian interference ordinance Wednesday during the city’s Public Health and Safety Committee meeting.
The council aims to make downtown safer and more shopper-friendly by curbing unsavory behavior like sleeping and lying on sidewalks. The code would, if approved by the full council Monday night, dovetail with a recently passed ban against aggressive panhandling.
And so, on Wednesday, committee members tweaked the ordinance, aiming to keep downtown healthy, while not criminalizing poor people.
“I see that as outlawing homelessness, and I don’t think that’s where we want to go,” said Councilman Bob Jaffe of language in the ordinance prohibiting sleeping or lying on sidewalks entirely.
Jaffe proposed an amendment changing the ordinance to ban sleeping or lying within 12 feet of a building entrance, rather than the original language. Jaffe’s amendment passed, meaning the law’s scope, if it passes, will be narrower.
But many said that move yanked the ordinance's teeth.
“I don’t think we’re giving the police the correct tools,” said Councilman Jon Wilkins, after hearing an earful from downtown business owners concerned about the amendment. “The police need some teeth to solve these problems downtown.”
It’s tough for downtown retailers and restaurateurs to compete with the Southgate Mall. And business owners expressed fear that downtown will continue to suffer.
“The mall is clean and neat. You don’t have to worry about stepping over bums. I have to compete with that,” says Barry Kubas, owner of Desmonds clothing store on N. Higgins Avenue.
And it’s not just sleeping on sidewalks—other undesirable behavior stems from allowing people to sleep on sidewalks, like defecating and drug use, said a West Broadway restaurant owner who recalled people smoking meth and having sex outside his establishment.
But council members said people should call police when behavior like that arises and cautioned about trying to solve too many social and legal issues with one bullet.
“It’s already illegal to smoke meth,” said Councilwoman Marilyn Marler. “It’s already illegal to have sex in public.”
The amendment passed 5-3. Renee Mitchell, Dick Haines and Wilkins voted against it.