It was a close call, but a narrowly split San Luis Obispo City Council approved subtle changes to its challenged overnight camping ordinance.
In what could have been its last chance to get an updated ordinance on the books ahead of a looming Dec. 31 deadline, the council reached a vote that divided members 3-2.
Kathy Smith and Dan Carpenter voted to put off the decision until at least the next meeting, when the council is expected to get an update on the city’s new safe parking program. But the majority couldn’t bear the prospect of spending even a month as the only city in the county that doesn’t prohibit overnight camping on city streets.
“Unless you believe we should have people camping on the street,” Councilman Andrew Carter said, “you should be in favor of this ordinance.”
According to the new law, sleeping in a vehicle on a city street between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. would result in a parking ticket reportable to the Department of Motor Vehicles, as opposed to the current criminal citation, which is referred to court.
Excessive parking citations could result in the towing of a vehicle, City Attorney Christine Dietrick said.
“There would have been no harm to the vehicle with the prior [ordinance],” Dietrick said.
The city attorney, in response to questions on whether the city’s police department will continue the controversial practice of knocking on vehicle windows at 3 a.m., said the ordinance would still require law enforcement officers to verify offenses through contact.
Stew Jenkins, one of two attorneys for the SLO Homeless Alliance, spoke softly in public comment but clearly stated his opinion that the new ordinance didn’t satisfy the terms of the civil settlement and alluded that it could become another legal challenge in a saga that’s already cost the city at least $77,000 in outside legal fees since April.
“I’ve never threatened litigation, but I have given warning,” Jenkins said.
Carpenter, who was the sole vote against the settlement, seemed to acknowledge that the new ordinance could lead to more litigation, and argued that the proposed law only changed the fine structure, not the “behavior” inspiring it.
“This is just pushing the problem aside,” Carpenter said. “Let’s not put something in place simply to put it in place.”
Initially, Councilman John Ashbaugh—making note of his swing vote—seemed receptive to holding off on the measure. But there was incentive for Ashbaugh to push forward.
Under terms of the Aug. 9 settlement, the city has until Jan. 1 to pass a new ordinance that meets criteria laid out in the settlement. But once officially passed on a second reading, the new law wouldn’t go into effect for another 30 days. Further complicating matters—because the new law would result in a parking citation—proper signage would have to be stockpiled and posted before it could be enforced.
“We need to move forward on this tonight,” Mayor Jan Marx said. “That would make the city a magnet for this type of conduct. It is not aimed at the homeless people, it is aimed at people sleeping in cars overnight.”
The council will address the Prado Road safe parking program on Oct. 2.