By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Occupy Santa Rosa’s encampment on the lawn of City Hall will be allowed to stay for now after the City Council agreed to grant protesters camping permits following a dramatic and emotional emergency meeting Thursday.
After 4½ hours of testimony and discussion, the council agreed to pass an urgency ordinance that goes into effect immediately and makes it possible for individuals to obtain 15-day camping permits that come with a long list of conditions.
“I think this movement has come a long way in a very short time,” Councilman Gary Wysocky said. “I think you’ve learned that you need to focus and you need to have some achievable goals.”
Councilman Jake Ours, who was heckled at the previous council meeting for telling protesters they needed to remember they were “guests in our home,” said he was gratified to see the group got his core message to take control of the protest. He said he has high hopes the movement could create real change in the nation.
“I think that you all are the beginning of a unique movement that can set the tone for politics and set the tone for the presidential election, and I would truly like to see that,” Ours said.
The packed council chambers erupted in jubilation following the 5-2 vote, in part because it was far from clear if the measure would pass. An urgency ordinance requires five votes to pass, and Councilman Scott Bartley initially expressed hesitation, saying the movement needed to transition into its next phase instead of focusing on a right to camp.
But he shifted to the majority, joining Wysocky, Ours, Susan Gorin and Marsha Vas Dupre in supporting the measure. Mayor Ernesto Olivares and Vice Mayor John Sawyer both praised the goals of the movement and the passion and respect show by the activists, but voted against the measure, citing public safety, sanitation and liability concerns.
“I can’t take anybody’s safety lightly,” said Olivares, a retired police lieutenant.
Following the vote, Ben Browner, one of the Occupy Santa Rosa representatives who participated in a presentation to the council, could hardly speak.
“It’s still up to all of us,” Browner said as protesters cheered and hugged one another all around him.
The decision followed another marathon council meeting during which protesters explained their motivations. They said camping is intertwined with their right to free speech, and they begged the council to stand with them in their quest to highlight issues such as income disparity, the care of the homeless, and the corrupting influence of money in politics.
Browner, who said he’d been living in his van for the past 9months, apologized for the growing pains of the group, likening it to an adolescent going through profound changes very quickly as the movement grows.
“No one’s leading this. No one’s in charge. We’re all kind of making it up as we go along, and that’s creating a lot of chaos,” Browner said. “And we understand this.”
The group initially allowed anyone to take part in the movement, but protesters now realize that that led to problems that were detracting from the group’s goals.
Tuesday council members essentially told them to clean up their act or face eviction. It was a wake-up call to the group that helped energize them to become more organized and focused, Browner said. They have cleaned up the camp, organized the tents into a grid at the request of fire officials and pledged to clamp down on troublemakers.
“I feel like there’s a real insurgence of hope right now,” Browner said. “It all seems to be working out right now, and to cut it short at this point in time, I think would do the city a great disservice.”
It looked like the camping portion of the movement could be cut short after Tuesday’s meeting, when a police presentation about service to the encampment stunned many on the council.
Offenses reported ranged from sexual assault, battery on an officer, drug use, parole violation, and many others. Olivares said it appeared the camp was creating its own “high-crime area” downtown.
Chief Tom Schwedhelm on Thursday said his department had spent about $24,000 on the protest to date, including $8,000 in overtime. The total includes responses to the various marches that have occurred.
He refined the total number of police responses to the protest from 173 to 154, out of which there had been 49 arrests and 21people booked into county jail. About half the people arrested were not from Santa Rosa, Schwedhelm said.
Liz Basile, 83, was one of many people who said she was not actively protesting, but was inspired by the intelligence and passion of the young people she’s met at Occupy site.
“They give me pride and hope for the future,”
Wysocky said the group had impressed him most with the way it treated the homeless and mentally ill with compassion.
“A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable and you are showing us the way,” he said.
“There is not one person up here that doesn’t recognize the truth of what you are saying,” Gorin added.
The protests in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement began Oct. 15, and tents began sprouting up on City Hall Oct. 29. City officials opted not to immediately enforce their ban on camping on public property without a permit,
Olivares said it was the right decision at the time, but it led to “unanticipated consequences” that included a surge in law enforcement responses to the area, sanitation concerns, and complaints by some city workers that they were uncomfortable in their own workplace.
City Manager Kathy Millison said more work needs to be done on how the permits will be granted and when the process will start. She said she hoped it could begin by Monday.
“We haven’t ironed out all the details yet,” Millison said.
The conditions for a permit include:
– Every adult camper has to give the city his or her name.
– Every tent owner has to get a separate permit and a tag to be affixed to the tent.
– Tents need to be contained to the two northern lawns of City Hall.
– Tents must be 20 feet away from buildings, and spaced at least five feet apart.
– Each tent must be limited to four campers.
– No pets except service dogs allowed.
– No cooking, open fires, generators, space heaters or storage of flammable material such as propane.
– No smoking, drinking, drug use or glass bottles.
– All trash must be removed from the site.
– No digging, trenching or disturbing landscaping.
– No disruption of City Hall operations or nearby businesses.
– Campers under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.