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Mayor Keeley Targets the Homeless with Surprise Traffic Median Motion

by Santa Cruz News
At the March 14th meeting of the Santa Cruz City Council, Mayor Fred Keeley introduced a surprise motion targeting homeless residents who panhandle on traffic medians (watch video below). Keeley's motion was not included anywhere in the meeting's agenda packet, he spontaneously inserted it into an unrelated vote on item #15, which concerned bicycle safety improvements and the removal of automobile parking on Laurel Street. Keeley stated the motion as follows: "Add additional direction that the City Manager return at budget hearings with a plan for installing safety devices that prohibit remaining on traffic islands or medians at the city's ten most busy intersections." Keeley didn't make any specific reference to the act of panhandling, or to the housing status of individuals who were to be targeted by his proposal, but several public officials responded that they understood the intent of the motion. The City's budget hearings are scheduled to begin in May.
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Because Mayor Keeley made the motion after the public comment period on an unrelated agenda item, the public was not given a chance to comment on it. Keeley only gave two very brief explanations as to why he introduced the motion, and he didn't provide any traffic safety data.

"People essentially setting up shop on a city median is dangerous for that person, for the general public, for other folks who are trying to get through the intersection, for motorists and everybody else," Keeley said, which was his lengthiest explanation of the motion.

Several public officials responded.

"I think that the direction is fine," City Attorney Tony Condotti chimed in, "but we will need to do some legal analysis about potential first amendment issues associated with what is essentially tantamount to [...] a prohibition on loitering on traffic medians."

Director of Public Works Nathan Nguyen said "river rock" could be installed on the medians, which is something the City has been doing for over ten years at many of its busiest intersections. Keeley cut him off quickly. "I don't think that works well," the Mayor said.

"We understand the spirit of the request, so what we can do is bring back some options at a later date, as we move through budget hearings," City Manager Huffaker then said.

"I'm just trying to understand how this connects with this item," Councilmember Sonja Brunner said to Keeley.

The Mayor's surprise motion appeared to confuse Councilmember Brunner, but it's not likely she opposes the spirit of it. In her first year of office in 2021, Brunner was instrumental in the passage of two anti-homeless ordinances that criminalize homeless residents: the Camping Services and Standards Ordinance (CSSO) and the Oversized Vehicle Ordinance (OVO). Both ordinances created new misdemeanor offenses that, for the most part, apply only to homeless people.

"This is about safety in our roadways, and desires to reduce the conflict between vehicles and individuals not in vehicles," Keeley replied to Councilmember Brunner's comment.

"I understand your intention, but I was trying to understand the connection to this item," Brunner said.

It was at this point in the meeting that City Attorney Condotti stepped in to shut down further discussion of Keeley's motion. "I do think that this discussion needs to be circumscribed because this is an item not on your agenda," Condotti stated.

Keeley's motion was passed unanimously by the City Council. In the summary of the meeting, the wording of the motion was inscribed as follows: "Direct the City Manager to return at budget hearings with a plan for installing safety devices that prohibit loitering on islands or medians at the City’s ten most busy intersections."

In addition to installing river rocks on traffic medians to deter panhandling, on May 28, 2013 the Santa Cruz City Council passed a ban on remaining on traffic medians and roundabouts. None of the public officials commenting on Keeley's motion made any reference to the ordinance.

Chapter 10.36.040 of the city's code, titled "Remaining on Median Strips and Roundabouts," defines the term “remain” as meaning, "the use of a median or roundabout for a purpose other than assistance in crossing the street including the purposes of disorderly conduct, solicitation of money, solicitation of prostitution, consumption of alcoholic beverages, or other activity not related to crossing the street."

Any person who violates the ordinance can receive a misdemeanor for remaining on a traffic median if they are cited twice for it within a six-month period.

The ordinance passed with city staff providing very little safety data. The staff report from the May 28, 2013 meeting only said this: "Though there are few historical incidents of motorists striking individuals in medians or roundabouts, in 2012, there were 8 incidents of drivers crashing into traffic signs on medians and other right-of-way locations in the City. This demonstrates the danger posed by individuals remaining on traffic medians (of all types) and roundabouts."

In comments made to the City Council in May of 2013, local homeless advocate Robert Norse questioned the validity of staff's public safety claims.

"As is typical for those trying to restrict public spaces and criminalize homeless presence without saying so, the staff report (and the complaint anti-homeless "Public Safety" Committee) uses a "public safety" pretext without any statistical documentation," Norse wrote.

"No statistics indicating any accidents involving people, no car crashes--simply some traffic signs crashed into (which has nothing to do with people on the median--who may actually make drivers more careful)," Norse added.

"Making illegal asking for help with signs is grossly abusive of the First Amendment, of course, as well as a callous slap in the face at those in need. It is also a violation of elementary morality, as well as a sign of the desperation and determination of NIMBY bigots to clear the streets of visibly poor people messing up the fantasy of healthy happy neighborhoods," Robert Norse concluded.
§City of Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley
by Santa Cruz News
§Agenda Item #15 Vote Summary
by Santa Cruz News
March 14, 2023 City Council Meeting

Vote Summary:
Municipal Code 10.36.040 - Remaining on Median Strips and Roundabouts!/SantaCruz10/SantaCruz1036.html#10.36
§Staff Report - May 28, 2013 City Council Meeting, Part 2
by Santa Cruz News
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