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Updated: City council passes police officer ordinance

The Ashland City Council passed an amended ordinance Tuesday night which allows a police officer to arrest a person on a Class C misdemeanor if that person does not give the officer his or her name and birth date while the officer is writing that person a citation for a violation.

This changed the wording from the proposed phrasing of allowing the police officer to arrest someone if he or she refuses to give identifying information to an officer who has “probable cause” that the person committed a crime.

All councilors voted in favor of the amended motion except for councilor Julie Akins. Councilor Rich Rosenthal was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.

The misdemeanor includes a maximum of 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,250.

Dozens of residents have expressed concerns that this ordinance could allow officers to target marginalized populations such as the homeless, LGBTQ+ and people of color.

Councilor Dennis Slattery suggested the amendment after he reached out to the city’s legal department about the most appropriate way to reword the ordinance after several residents said the phrase “probable cause” was too vague and could allow police officers to engage with marginalized populations negatively.

Founder of Southern Oregon Pride Gina DuQuenne said the city council is acting nonchalantly on something that will affect many people as she stood outside the city council chambers with other protesters before the meeting.

“This is ridiculous, the phrasing “probable cause” is unnecessary and opens the door to all the negative possibilities,” DuQuenne said. “I’ve lost loved ones to probable cause.”

This is the fourth council meeting in which this ordinance was discussed. A deliberation was scheduled for the last business meeting on July 16, but due to the unprecedented number of people speaking against the ordinance, about an hour and a half worth of testimony and the other items on the agenda, the meeting hit a hard stop at 10:30 p.m., per council rules.

Because this item was a continuation of deliberation from the last meeting, the public forum was not opened to the disappointment of several people who wanted to speak against the ordinance. The council heard from Ashland residents during a total of approximately three hours of public forum, consisting of residents urging the council to vote no during the last three meetings at which this ordinance was discussed.

There were also two protests held before the council meeting, one before Tuesday’s meeting and one before the July meeting led by a coalition of labor union and community activist organizations.

Protesters dressed in green lined the walkway into council chambers, chanting phrases such as “You don’t need to know our names, our rights are not a game” and singing Frédéric Chopin’s “Funeral March” as councilors walked past. They held signs with various phrases asking the council to remember civil rights.

One man’s green shirt read “Calm down Gringo I’m legal!”

Mat dos Santos, the legal director of the Oregon Branch of the national civil liberties organization ACLU, sent a letter to the city council Tuesday before the meeting which states that this ordinance will target homeless people.

“Ordinance 3176 targets homeless people for going about their lives in public spaces,” the letter reads. “Piling on criminal penalties adds to our overburdened criminal justice system and shifts the burden to taxpayers, while doing nothing to address the root issue – lack of housing and services.”

The city attorney David Lohman wrote a memo in response to the ACLU letter which will supposedly be posted on the city website sometime Wednesday, Aug. 7.

The memo was a series of question prompts the council could have asked Lohman during the meeting to clarify for the public that the ordinance was not intentionally written to target the homeless and that why the city finds the ordinance constitutional. The council did not ask these questions.

A petition floating around town and online asking for a no vote garnered more than 230 signatures, according to a staff organizer for the Oregon branch of the AFL-CIU union group Misha Hernandez, but the resistance wasn’t enough to shake the council body as a whole.

At the last meeting, councilor Stefani Seffinger was cut off during her comments. She concluded during the meeting Tuesday that she wants everyone to feel safe, but ultimately, she doesn’t think this ordinance will make people feel unsafe.

“The feeling of safety for everyone in the community is important to me,” Seffinger said. “I would never want to pass an ordinance that would make people to feel unsafe or targeted, but I don’t think this ordinance does that.”

As the only no vote, councilor Julie Akins asked if the council could have subject matter experts help tweak the wording to make everyone comfortable.

“There are several civil rights liberty attorneys who have weighed in on this and can help us create wording that we can all be comfortable with,” Akins said. “There’s no need to rush this. I don’t want someone to go to jail for 30 days because they were smoking where they shouldn’t be. It’s overkill.”

Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said he only wants his officers to be able to do their jobs and that the intention for this ordinance is not to stop people for no reason as rumors floating through town say.

He said after the McNally ruling of 2017 the Oregon Supreme Court redefined what “passive resistance” means. O’Meara said anyone who remains silent is technically participating in passive resistance and that this information has spread to those who persistently violate rules.

O’Meara said this means that an officer can’t write a ticket for a violation if the person refuses to give their name and birth date rendering the officer incapable of authority.

He said officers already have the right to stop anyone acting suspiciously and the right to arrest anyone on a serious crime, but Ashland officers mostly issue tickets for code violations through the municipal court which they can’t do without identifying information. This ordinance legally bypasses the McNally ruling allowing the officers to do their jobs.

In the previous multiple public forum sessions, residents commended O’Meara on his work and his department, but still disagreed with the passing of the ordinance.

Many residents also expressed concerns that this ordinance might cause officers to out someone who identifies as transgender because they might not use their legal name.

O’Meara said he’s working closely with local community partners as well as police departments and LGBTQ+-friendly organizations of large cities such as Portland and Seattle to come up with a positive and appropriate solution to this problem.

There are quarterly reports scheduled for O’Meara to give to the city council, including reports on a training model from Seattle that Ashland police officers will undergo with how to engage with the transgender community and reports on the outcomes of the ordinance.

Many residents in previous public forum sessions said that even if this police department would never take advantage of a new law to target people, what if the next group of officers did?

The ordinance will be repealed after one year unless the council decides to keep it. The council has asked O’Meara to present information on how this ordinance is used and who it is impacting throughout various points of the first year.

If the ordinance is kept on the books for years to come, a report will be added to the annual police use of force report given to the council every spring by the police chief.

Slattery said he’s asked City Administrator Kelly Madding and O’Meara to help the council connect with various community members to create a panel of 5-8 representatives to sit with the council during these presentations to discuss whether the ordinance is working appropriately similar to the citizen budget committee process.

Madding said there are several community groups she thinks would work well in these discussions, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Queer Resource Center at Southern Oregon University.

The city published legal clarifications on its website.

The ordinance goes into effect in 30 days.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

(Aug. 7: Story updated to add new information including a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon and the city of Ashland's response.)

About 30 protesters gathered outside of the Ashland City Council chambers Tuesday evening to rally against the council approval of an ordinance which will allow{ } police officers to arrest a person on a Class C misdemeanor if the arresting officer has probable cause that the person committed a crime and the person refuses to give their name and birth date.{ }Ashland Tidings / Caitlin Fowlkes