ML council passes new parks ordinance

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Richard Byrd/Columbia Basin Herald Moses Lake council members passed an ordinance Tuesday night that allows the city to issue civil infractions to violators of the ordinance and gives police the ability to trespass violators from city parks for up to a year.

MOSES LAKE — Despite opposition from several local homeless advocates, the Moses Lake City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday night that gives the city the ability to issue civil infractions to violators of the ordinance, including graduated penalties for repeat violators.

The ordinance also allows police officers to trespass violators from city parks for up to a year. At a previous meeting council members considered changing the hours of operation at city parks, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but decided against the change per the recommendation of city staff. Included in the ordinance is several special use areas in city parks, such as trails used for running and athletic courts, that are excluded from the normal hours of operation for the set use only.

The main idea behind the ordinance to buck the trend of vandalism and crime at the parks. Parks and Recreation Director Spencer Grigg said damage to the bathrooms at parks alone costs the city thousands of dollars a year, not to mention the use of certain bathrooms as a location to use drugs and sleep.

“The key on our end is trying to curb the uptick in vandalism and crime that we have seen in our park facilities. We have had commentary from citizens who voiced their concern that they don’t always feel safe going into certain portions of the parks, sometimes specifically the restrooms and the restrooms seem to be one area that has a been really a problem lately. We have had a lot of damage and typically that is done under the cover of darkness late at night.”

The ordinance passed during Tuesday night’s meeting despite significant opposition from several citizens. Grant County Commissioner Tom Taylor, who previously served as chief for the Moses Lake Fire Department, explained that Grant Integrated Services, which is the county’s mental health care service, employs a mobile outreach team that contacts members of the local homeless population. He said restricting people from the parks would exclude the homeless advocates from making contact with homeless people who spend time at parks.

“In a way it criminalizes homelessness. Maybe not directly, but over time homeless people tend to return to places they are comfortable at and naturally those are going to be some of the parks,” Taylor remarked.

Taylor suggested a certain provision to allow homeless advocates to enter city parks after the normal hours of operation. Serve Moses Lake Director Tim Cloyd said in 2017 there were 28 individuals in Moses Lake who were classified as homeless. He noted that over the three months the Warming Center was open in Moses Lake in 2016-2017, more than 170 different individuals used the center and unless they were able to secure adequate housing, most of them were back on the streets after the center closed.

Moses Lake Police Department Chief Kevin Fuhr noted park closures in cities are not uncommon at night to curb crime and the city already has several designated homeless areas/camps that are not in city parks. He also said if homeless people are in the parks after hours they won’t necessarily be in trouble and officers can use discretion and often will help the person find an adequate place to stay, as the city has prohibited camping in city parks for a number of years.

Council member Mike Norman said he does not want the city to repeat the mistakes of other cities when it comes to the local homeless population.

“I do not want Moses Lake to become Seattle. I understand we are at the beginning of a problem here, we have 28 here now. Next year what's it going to be? Fifty or 30 or something? I support very, very strongly the idea of us being proactive with the homeless problem now, as opposed to what I consider to be enabling homelessness, which is, if we do not put some hours on our parks I believe that is exactly what we are doing in part,” Norman asserted.

City Manager John Williams said groups who want to enter city parks, such as the homeless mobile outreach team, can make a request to the city manager’s office and be allowed entry into the parks for a preset purpose.

Richard Byrd can be reached via email at city@columbiabasinherald.com.

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