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Striking up the bans

Contentious new ordinances have not yet resulted in citations

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A series of three new city ordinances—prohibiting public smoking, “unruly” gatherings of 20 people or more, and even feeding ducks—as well as the expansion of an existing ordinance doubling fines on certain holidays, went into effect May 20.

Was it the End of Days many residents feared would befall them? Not quite. In fact, at the time of this printing, police had not issued even one citation stemming from those ordinances.

First to pass was an ordinance prohibiting smoking in public places. Approved April 20, it bans smoking on sidewalks, in shopping centers, and amid public events such as Farmers Market. Existing tobacco retailers and smoking patios at some downtown bars are exempt.

According to Brigitte Elke, principal administrative analyst for the city, a violator of the smoking ban would be fined $100 for a first offense. Subsequent violations within a 12-month period would result in $200 and $500 penalties, respectively. Elke emphasized that within the first 30 days of the ordinance, the city favors “community outreach;” violators would be given warnings.

“The police are not patrolling looking for smokers,” Elke said. “Unless there’s somebody complaining to police, or if there are blatant offenders where … officers are repeatedly warning the same person. If that were the case, there’s a possibility they could be cited. It really depends on what the officer decides.”

For the time being, police are favoring education over citations. As one officer patrolling Higuera Street told New Times, when it comes to enforcement, there’s a distinction between upholding the spirit and the letter of the law. The officer, who preferred not to be named, said he’d rather kindly inform people to put out a butt than write a ticket.

“That’s the stance we’ll try to take, unless a person’s refusing to comply of course,” said SLOPD Sgt. Chris Staley, who emphasized the law is designed to be self-enforcing. “We want to give people the opportunity to learn about the new rules as long as we can.” However, Staley said repeat offenders can’t depend on a break.

Nearly a week after the ordinance went into effect, grumblings about the ban were not as widespread as originally predicted. Bill Hales of Ash Management, for example, who co-owns several downtown bars, told New Times, “It doesn’t seem to really be bothering anybody, at least not yet.”

The same day the smoking ban was approved, the council also passed the Unruly Gathering Ordinance, which the police department hopes will deter noisy late-night parties in crowded residential areas.

A staff report defines an unruly gathering as 20 people or more on private property who make excessive noise, disturb the peace, or are otherwise rowdy.

People liable for such a gathering include not only those responsible for it—the party hosts—but also the property owners, if they are not one and the same. If a property owner is not present, a fine of $700 for a first offense would be issued to the people present and a notice would be sent to the owner. Subsequent violations during a 12-month period would result in a $1,000 fine to the hosts. Property owners ultimately can be fined $500 for each violation after the initial notice.

The law had sparked anger from Cal Poly and Cuesta College students, who said they were being picked on. A group on the social networking site Facebook popped up before the council passed the ordinance, but was abandoned after nearly 2,000 students pledged to stage a demonstration in front of City Hall. 

Cal Poly’s Associated Students representative Jacob Alvarez said though there was initial resistance, he was not aware of any student group planning protests. Cal Poly Student Life and Leadership Associate Director Stephan Lamb agreed that though he heard rumblings, interest in fighting the new law had fizzled out. “We are at Dead Week now, so I think from the student perspective they’re looking elsewhere,” Lamb said. “Once it starts getting implemented when students come back from break, then we’ll see.”

Perhaps the oddest of the ordinances is the Stormwater Ordinance, aka the duckfeeding ban, which, as the name suggests, bans feeding ducks where they congregate, in such places as parks and creeks. According to an April 6 city staff report, duck feces is a major pollutant in the city’s ground water.

The ordinance was enacted to help compliance with state water standards, but generated heat. As one city official told New Times, “Feeding ducks? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

SLO Parks and Recreation Manager Shannon Bates said park rangers will be patrolling as they make the daily rounds, but citing grandmothers and children is no priority. According to Lead Park Ranger Doug Carscaden, implementing the new policy won’t ruin his day; it’s “just one more thing we’ll be checking for.” “We’ve known this was coming down the pipeline since the storm water plan was mandated by the state,” he continued. “It’s no big deal—we knew it was coming and here it is.” Duck feeders face the same $100-$200-$500 penalties as scofflaw smokers.

The council also expanded the “safety enhancement” ordinance, which was implemented after the Mardi Gras riot in 2004 and allows fines for alcohol-related violations and other disruptive behavior to double up to $1,000. It was revised April 20 to include Saint Patrick’s Day and Halloween in
addition to Mardi Gras.

Elke told New Times the lack of iron-fisted enforcement of the bans in the first 30 days is typical for these types of municipal ordinances. But don’t expect the honeymoon to last .

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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