BRADENTON – A controversial ordinance that will give the city's law enforcement more authority in dealing with trespassers on public property, in part by widening the scope of what would constitute a trespassing violation, was passed 4-1 by the council on Wednesday evening. The majority vote expressed faith that authorities would not abuse the broad and sometimes vague guidelines on how to deal with violations and violators. The vote was made after a public hearing in which support and opposition were heard by citizens and councilmen. Councilman Harold Byrd dissented on the vote after voicing concern that some of the new provisions detailed in the ordinance that enable authorities to apply penalties do not deserve a trespassing violation.
City employee Robert Cox was the first to speak in support of the new measure. He explained that as a stairwell cleaner for a parking garage in the downtown area, he has had frequent issues with trespassers, whom he said often left him feeling intimidated while working alone in the garage. He said many of the trespassers would leave when summoned police would ask them to do so, but would then return to the area when the authorities left. The ordinance, which would allow for criminal violations to be applied after a warning is issued to the trespasser to leave the area and then a second violation occurs, would "give the police the opportunity to show that they at least mean business when they tell violators to leave," said Mr. Cox.
But there was also much opposition to the ordinance. Charles Smith of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference told the council that the language in the ordinance was too permissive in how trespassing violations could be meted out. He cited a question Councilman Bemis Smith raised at the ordinance's first reading two weeks prior, in which the councilman questioned whether a citizen illegally parking their car on the grass would constitute a trespassing warning. (Section 1 of the ordinance states: [Police officers]...are authorized to issue a trespass warning to any individual who violates any City ordinance, rule or regulation, or State law which violation was committed while on or within any City facility, building, or outdoor area that is open to the general public...")
He also lambasted the length of time that a citizen would have to file an appeal after being issued a trespassing warning (7-10 days, as stated in the ordinance): "Most working folks cannot get a lawyer within 10 days."
Councilman Gene Gallo expressed support for the ordinance, saying that the majority of violations at public parks occurred after midnight, and that "nothing good happens after midnight."
Councilmen Gene Brown and Patrick Roff also expressed support for the amendment, stating that it would help curtail crime in the city's parks and other public properties. Mr. Roff said he believed that law enforcement would not abuse the ordinance and harrass citizens, and that the passing of the ordinance itself would help deter unlawful activity in public parks. Mr. Brown added: "We don't want to infringe on anybody's rights, but we want to protect (lawful) people."
Councilman Byrd, speaking in opposition to the ordinance, began his dissenting remarks by first expressing support for cutting criminal activity in the city's parks. He then said he believed that the ordinance would give potential "for classes of people to be harassed, or discriminated against ... I think it's an unfair ordinance, and I will vote against it." Despite Mr. Byrd's concerns, he was the lone dissenter in the vote.
In respect to some of the concerns raised about the ordinance, Councilman Smith made a motion to make two changes to the ordinance: (1) to change the appeal to trespass deadline, as noted in J1 or the ordinance, from 10 days to 20 days; and (2) to give appellants the option of asking for an additional 40 days before their hearing, which would be fulfilled upon request as long as said request was made within the original 40 day time period. He also made a separate motion that would require a report that detailed the number of violators and their specific violations given six months later, in order to see if the ordinance needs further tweaking. Both motions were passed unanimously.
Full results from Wednesday's agenda can be viewed here.