It seems pretty cut-and-dried. On April 1, the Seattle Human Rights Commission voted 9–1 to oppose the controversial aggressive-panhandling bill currently before the Seattle City Council. Which means the council won't touch the measure, right?
Wrong. You'd think a nearly unanimous objection, coming from a city board that exists to advise lawmakers on policy, would cause the city council to toss the bill into the shredder, but gallingly, two members of the city council's public safety committee are doing the opposite: digging in their heels to support it.
Council Member Sally Clark says she will "probably" vote for the bill, citing complaints of violence and intimidation lodged by downtown business owners and residents (complaints that Clark acknowledges would largely go unaddressed by the measure). Council Member Tim Burgess, the sponsor of the bill and the most conservative member of the council, is even more dismissive of the commission's concerns. Referring to the worries about due process raised by the human-rights board, Burgess says the commission—a city-appointed panel comprising attorneys, doctors, and experts on public policy—"misunderstands the ordinance."
Burgess's bill would allow cops to issue $50 citations for aggressive solicitation without a citizen complaint, even though the city already has a criminal aggressive-panhandling ordinance on the books.
The commissioners, in the course of their debate, found the bill would be redundant, ineffective, and could skirt due process for suspects. A ticket requires a lower burden of proof than the existing criminal law, notes commission chair Roslyn Solomon, and people who don't pay the ticket or miss a court date—a likely scenario for panhandlers—would automatically end up with a criminal conviction and then could be jailed or committed into treatment.
"I understand that some people may feel uncomfortable downtown," says Solomon. "The question is how best to approach that and deal with that." She says that the commission widely supports other provisions of a plan to address disorder downtown, such as increasing police foot patrols and police presence overall, and augmenting social services. But, she says, Burgess's bill makes the mistake of criminalizing a civil infraction.
"We don't think that this is the right way to do it, by creating due-process concerns, criminalizing people who don't have representation of counsel, and ordering people against their will into services," she says.
Burgess says he's "mystified by the due-process concerns."
But he shouldn't be "mystified" much longer. Commissioners are planning to explain, one-on-one to each council member, the inherent human-rights flaws in the bill. The commission is also going to issue a report to the council members (it came out after The Stranger went to press).
Critics of the bill have some allies at City Hall. Council Member Bruce Harrell says the commission's recommendation "should not be taken lightly, given their role in helping our city balance safety issues against our civil liberties." Mayor Mike McGinn, too, says the commission "raises serious issues that the council should consider." And Council Member Nick Licata notes that the board's vote "must be taken seriously." On April 5, he introduced two amendments that would delay implementation of Burgess's measure until the city also allocates funding for more police patrols and social services to address problematic panhandling.