Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist
Proposed street-disorder law useful step to ensure street civility
Monday's City Council vote on an anti-aggressive-panhandling law is stirring quite a storm this week, one reminiscent of a similar community dialogue in the 1990s. Former Mayor Norm Rice said it best when he said the streets belong to everyone and everyone should have safe passage.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Welcome to Fear Week on the proposed Seattle street-disorder law. Citing concerns about impacts on poor people, the 37th District Democrats met Monday and proclaimed strong opposition to a proposed anti-aggressive-panhandling law.
Other legislative districts will be asked to do something similar this week in advance of next Monday's City Council vote.
Hold on a minute. Didn't political activists express almost identical concerns a generation earlier in the 1990s when Mayor Norm Rice and City Attorney Mark Sidran backed tougher street rules to revive downtown Seattle?
Yes they did, and the most notable thing that happened was downtown was revitalized and certain street behavior improved.
You don't have to be a tough city attorney like Sidran or even a former cop like Councilmember Tim Burgess, sponsor of the proposed law, to grasp the connection between civil, passable streets and a vibrant business district.
Mayor Rice, also known as Mayor Nice, and Sidran advocated rules against aggressive panhandling and sitting and lying that blocked entrances to businesses and drove customers away. From that and other steps, Rice rightfully gained a mayoral legacy of saving downtown.
"The streets belong to everybody and everybody should have safe passage as they walk through," said Rice this week, recalling the theme that drove policies in the 1990s.
That theory applies just as strongly today.
Burgess' proposal restricts aggressive panhandling by slapping a civil infraction on those who intentionally block or interfere with a person, use threatening language, follow a person, or solicit at a cash machine or public or private pay station — if such behavior causes fear or a compulsion to give.
Earlier legislation required proof of intent to intimidate, which became too high a threshold.
Sure, downtown Seattle is more vibrant now. But remember the scene circa 1993-94: Several major businesses, including anchor tenants in the heart of the retail core, were boarded up, vacant or preparing to move out of downtown. Homeless folks and beggars camped out on blankets, with dogs, cats, cooking utensils and more, blocking entrances to shops. Aggressive panhandlers worked the streets. Graffiti marred storefronts. Downtown was in a precarious state.
Today, as the city densifies, with more people living downtown, more biking and walking as Mayor Mike McGinn urges, the place must be customer-and-pedestrian friendly. Downtown business provides significant revenue for the city budget, money that pays for all kinds of city services.
And that is why the City Council should look past legislative district proclamations and vote for the current plan.
No one, not Sidran, Rice or Burgess, aims to beat up the homeless. Keep in mind, this is about behavior, not life predicament. Only a small minority of the homeless are engaged in menacing behavior.
Rice says even if some of the earlier rules were tough to enforce, the message that everyone must have access proved very powerful.
Downtown Seattle today is lively, yet there is an undercurrent of feelings that spells trouble. Twenty-three percent of respondents to a local poll say they avoid downtown because they don't feel safe.
Burgess' plan is neither radical nor mean-spirited. It simply gives police additional tools to make the streets feel safer.
Some people say Burgess' rules won't change much. I don't believe that. The rules will impose a code of conduct that would change the way people think about downtown.
Burgess is committed to finding a new police chief who believes in more feet on the street. He insists on ensuring the city continues to fund and hire 21 new police officers a year for three years and provide social services.
The beggar leaning against the building on Pine Street, hat outstretched seeking a few coins, need not change his routine. But the street tough who puts an arm on folks or yells at them or follows them or who begs at the cash machine will have to stop.
Government must take big and little steps to assure a sense of street civility. Little steps add up to big impressions. Seattle has a duty to help people in need, protect public safety and fight every day for a strong and vibrant downtown economy.
Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.