Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The Arcata City Council’s 6 p.m. meeting was called to order by Mayor Michael Winkler at 6:24 p.m. last week, continuing a pattern of lackadaisical schedule adherence at City Hall.
Council Chamber was packed with restive citizens – including a group of Girl Scouts and Daisies there on a school night to lead the flag salute – on hand to address some hot-button items that were on the agenda, and some that weren’t.
The council had been in closed session, and its nominal report out included no explanation was for the near-half hour delay, nor any apology.
Councilmember Mark Wheetley was to have participated by audio link from a North Carolina location, but was absent, leaving an even-numbered council.
Ordinance no. 1451
Ordinance no. 1451, a proposal by Police Chief Tom Chapman, would modify the existing downtown smoking ban.
Lately, the ban has had the unintend consequence of causing smokers to gather on the fringes of the boundaries.
One popular location is the intersection of Ninth and J streets, where smokers congregate and engage in various forms of behavior that area residents find objectionable.
“A series of issues cropped up,” Chapman acknowledged.
Charged by the council with developing solutions, the chief could not locate designated smoking areas, or smoker sanctuaries near the Plaza and Intermodal Transit Facility that would preserve the original intent of ordinance – second-hand smoke.
Under Chapman’s new proposal, smoking would be banned in all publicly owned places throughout the city – unless one is walking or otherwise in motion.
“You can’t congregate and smoke,” Chapman said. “You have to keep moving.”
He said his proposal wasn’t perfect, but that the issue “has to be addressed.”
Residents of the Ninth and J street smoker hangout were on hand with a petition and pointed comments.
Gail McDowell described the location as a hotbed of heavy drinking, smoking and belligerent behavior affecting the water quality of Jolly Giant Creek with flung butts and dog droppings.
She suggested that some “public art sculpture” might help create a “no-hang people zone.”
Cheryl Furman read the petition and told the council, “We want our home sweet homes back.”
Jane Williams, owner of the Bang! Bang! clothing store downtown on H Street, delivered a compact but powerful stemwinder than redefined the issue beyond cigarette annoyance.
She listed a number of petty and not-so-petty crimes eroding Arcata’s livability, including methamphetamine abuse, shoplifting, incivility and worse. She said the bad behavior that envelops her small shop daily puts her and her employees at risk.
“Arcata is in a state of crisis, and we need to do something about it,” Williams said. “I’m sad, because I’m trying really hard to have a business downtown... I’m begging and pleading with you to do whatever it takes.”
Her anguished address earned a thundering ovation.
A man with two young daughters identified himself as a resident of the Ninth and J streets neighborhood. He said he is unable to leave home with his children without them witnessing bad behavior, including drug-taking. He said he has been threatened, assaulted and his home vandalized, and that he was considering getting a concealed weapons permit.
“Just because we live in the downtown area, we shouldn’t have to live with this,” he said.
Sarah LeGar, an employee at Northtown Books, also on H street, further affirmed the growing sense of menace downtowners experience.
She said it’s frightening to navigate the streets at night since the smoking ban was put in place. She said she must pass in darkness “people who have nothing better to do and nothing to lose.”
Councilmember Sofia Pereira said a city-wide ban is unenforceable. “I feel like paring it down might be effective,” she said.
Councilmember Susan Ornelas said state law does allow anti-loitering enforcement in heavy drug use areas, and suggested that all of Humboldt County might qualify. She said the issue goes beyond smoking.
“This wasn’t our intent,” Ornelas said. She suggested unconventional solutions such as loud playing of Beethoven. She liked the suggestion that an “art sculpture” be installed.
She agreed that “pulling back” to the Plaza might be helpful.
Councilmember Paul Pitino said nothing would stop people from smoking, and called again for designated smoking areas, such as those at Humboldt State. He suggested setting one up as a pilot project.
Mayor Michael Winkler acknowledged the problems, and said the council had a responsibility to address them.
Ornelas said the city-wide ban would be counterproductive. It would make law-abiding people feel harassed, and non law-abiding would simply “game” it.
Ultimately, the council chose to introduce the ordinance on a 4-0 vote.
Prior to adoption, Chapman will research ways to redefine the unconditional smoking ban to more enforceable boundaries – possibly just the Plaza, scout again for possible smoker sanctuaries on the Plaza and at the ITF and look at ways to have varying levels of smoking restriction at different times of the day.
The council will reconsider the matter at its next meeting.