By Drew Harwell, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, July 14, 2012
CLEARWATER — This city could soon outlaw a harrowing crime: sitting.
Sitting or lying down on sidewalks or other public rights of way on Clearwater Beach, downtown or in the East Gateway neighborhood could mean a $500 fine, 60 days in jail or both.
The sitting ban is among a flurry of new ordinances the City Council will consider Monday as part of its crackdown on homeless people.
The council also could drop the hammer on sleeping outside, panhandling and bathing in public sinks. Like public sitting, each crime would be an arrestable offense.
The sitting ban is one of the most extreme proposals in a city already known for welding shut public bathrooms, turning off access to water in public areas and discouraging donations to a long-running soup kitchen.
But city leaders say the proposed ordinances, similar to bans enforced in St. Petersburg, San Francisco and Seattle, will give police more authority to clean up areas known for attracting the down-and-out.
"We do have challenges on the street, and the public wants us to respond to those in a humane way," City Manager Bill Horne said. "Our residents support us having a little more influence and teeth in our rules."
City Council members will discuss the proposed ordinances during the Monday work session and could take the first votes on them at their regular meeting Thursday. If approved, the proposals could become law as early as next month.
The ban on sitting and lying down would cover all the public rights of way — including sidewalks, boardwalks, piers, docks and the paths in and out of public buildings — on the beach, downtown or in the East Gateway neighborhood east of downtown. Resisting a request to move could result in an arrest.
There are exceptions. People could still sit in parks, on the sand of Clearwater beaches, at sidewalk cafes and while watching parades. They could sit on the rights of way if in wheelchairs, baby carriages or on public benches.
People who were having a medical emergency wouldn't be arrested for sitting or lying down in the midst of those emergencies.
And protesters legally could sit or lie down, but only if they had in their possession "signs or literature explaining the protest."
So why outlaw sitting? That proposed ordinance, written by assistant city attorney Rob Surette, states that sitting on the rights of way "threatens public safety," hurts businesses and "can lead to a spiral of deterioration and blight."