ROBERT PAQUETTE IS IN JAIL, WAITING FOR A TRIAL that could put him away for a year. Paquette, a 52-year-old Native American with no address, is awaiting trial for the crime of entering a public park.

Paquette is not a violent criminal, but rather a street person with a drinking problem, too destitute to make his $100 bail. He was banned from Denny Regrade Park in November of 1997 for possessing liquor, and when he insisted on returning, he was arrested. Under the Parks Enhanced Code Enforcement Ordinance, a controversial city law that passed 7-2 in the summer of '97, police can instantaneously exclude anyone from a park whom they suspect of engaging in illegal or "inappropriate" activity.

The Parks Ban gives police the power to eject people on the spot for a week, ban repeat suspects for up to a year without trial, and arrest anyone who defies the order.

The law is extremely popular among two of Seattle's strongest constituents: cops and neighborhood groups trying to clean up the streets and take back the parks.

Civil rights activists, on the other hand, consider the law dangerous and disturbing.

After a year and a half in office, Councilmember Nick Licata knows that there is no in-between on this issue, and with the prodding of his aide Lisa Herbold, he has decided to side with the civil rights folks. By doing so, Licata may be making the riskiest move of his political career. At tonight's public hearing (Thursday May 20, 6:30, Council Chambers), Licata will reintroduce a proposal to amend the code. The neighborhoods folks, who helped elect Licata, are likely to show up in full force, armed with rotten tomatoes.

Licata's moral high ground stems from an ACLU report released last summer, which found that the law disproportionately targets both minorities and homeless people. Of the people banished in the law's first year, 42 percent were homeless and 45 percent were minorities (Seattle's minority population is roughly 20 percent).

Because the SPD was only required to keep track of enforcement numbers for the first year, it's impossible to say how many people have been banished under the law. But 3,000 would not be an unreasonable guess, since 1,586 people were banned during the law's first year. The majority of the banishments have been for drinking, drugs, trespassing, or camping.

Licata wants to tweak the law so that only people who pose a threat to public safety by carrying weapons or committing felonies could be banned from city parks. No more banishing people for camping or trespassing on public property, when Seattle has just 2,300 shelter beds for 5,500 homeless people.

"I get calls every week from citizens who are offended by this ordinance," says Licata. "It's like a festering sore."

By trying to change the law, however, Licata risks alienating both the police (whom he has always been very careful to back) and the neighborhood activists (who love Licata for his work against the downtown pet projects that sap money away from the neighborhoods).

SPD Assistant Chief Harv Ferguson warned Licata in a letter last fall that amending the law "would encourage those who wish to use the parks for alcohol consumption, illegal drug sales, and other crimes to do so. The progress we have made in our parks in the past year would be lost."

According to Ferguson, Licata's amendments "would cut the heart out of the ordinance and kill it as quickly as would an outright appeal."

With a few exceptions, Seattle's neighborhood groups agree with the police. Paul Hovsepian, the president of the Greenwood Community Council, argues that Seattle's parks have changed for the better since the law passed. "If you can't control the parks, everything will fall apart. That's why this ordinance is so important. It gives police instantaneous power to tell people who are misbehaving, 'You have to leave and you can't come back.'"

But the prospect of giving more "instantaneous power" to the police doesn't make everyone feel warm and cozy. John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition has crusaded vigorously against the ordinance since it passed. In his opinion, the law reeks of apartheid and fascism. "I find it disturbing when a community takes an exclusionary attitude towards people," says Fox. "This proprietary notion that this is my park, my park bench, my baseball field, and not theirs, bothers me. It's a definition of community that excludes the homeless, low income people, and anybody who looks different."

So now Licata is in the uncomfortable position of siding with an activist who equates some of Licata's biggest supporters with fascists. That's precisely the sort of train wreck that he has managed to avoid, so far.

A year ago, after a contentious public hearing on the parks ban, Licata brought the two sides together in search of common ground. He found that there wasn't any, and dropped the issue.

Were he to read the polls before plotting his next move, like a good Clinton Democrat, Licata would be well advised to bury the parks ban debate for another year, or for good. Instead he's opening himself up to all the fury of people who are convinced they need this law to take back their parks. Although Councilmembers Peter Steinbrueck and Richard McIver are expected to co-sponsor the legislation, it is Licata's butt that is on the line here.

He'll be lucky to get more than three votes, but by sticking with his commitment to change the law, he'll be keeping a big promise to Seattle progressives--and get them off his back for a while.

"I just want to cross this road and move on," says Licata. "I hope I don't get run over."

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