By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez is getting a new set of laws that provide clearer expectations for personal conduct in public as well as more flexible methods of enforcing those behaviors.
In a vote Wednesday, Dec. 2, the Martinez City Council approved ordinance amendments governing outdoor camping, sleeping in vehicles and using public places as if they were restrooms. Those changes become effective 30 days after that vote.
During its Sept. 15 meeting, the council heard from several individuals who said they were fed up with people disrupting downtown events by rummaging through trash receptacles and disgusting business patrons by deliberately urinating and defecating in public view.
One woman didn’t stop there, some people told the council. She deliberately smeared her feces on nearby vehicles and did the same to the window of a bar that had to lock its doors to keep her outside, they said. That woman was found and taken into custody, Police Chief Manjit Sappal said a few days after the meeting.
Other residents complained about people sleeping in the city’s parks, urinating on storefronts and other inappropriate behavior.
Sappal assigned an officer to patrol the downtown area and began reviewing pertinent city codes. He then sent proposed revisions to the council, which gave the amendments their first reading Nov. 18.
The changes set limits on camping or setting up sleeping or camping equipment on public or private land, banning the practices between 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m.
The ban would be in effect at outdoor places, specifically buildings that aren’t supposed to be used for human habitation. But people wouldn’t be found in violation of the new law unless they had been informed of shelters where space actually is available and they refused to go.
Exceptions are made for those sleeping in designated camping spots, authorized camping events, such as organized youth camping functions, or if someone was sleeping in a yard with permission of its owner.
Sappal explained city codes have been banning camping or sleeping all hours of the day, and had no exceptions for something as simple as a family camp-out in its own back yard.
While violating the code normally would be considered a misdemeanor, the new amendment would let police officers reduce it to a mere infraction, for which one could receive a citation rather than a formal criminal charge that requires a court appearance.
The amendments also streamline the rules governing trespassing, so police can deal with those who have behaved badly at specific sites.
Sappal told the council last month city codes didn’t forbid public urination and defecation. The new amendments correct that oversight, and allow police to treat violations either as misdemeanors or as infractions.
Once it becomes effective, the new law forbids public urination or defecation on sidewalks, parks, streets, alleys, public buildings or other places in open view.
Sleeping in cars would also be forbidden under the ordinance amendments. People won’t be able to doze or sleep between 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. in vehicles parked in public or private places.
That worried Douglas Van Raam, a resident who said he often is driving early in the morning. Van Raam reminded the council that California’s vehicle codes advise motorists to pull over and sleep in their cars rather than drive when they are tired.
Like the other provisions, violators of this new law could be charged with a misdemeanor, or police would be allowed to handle an incident as an infraction.
If the Council heard enough improper behavior complaints in September to prompt the development of these new codes, it also heard concerns Wednesday, Dec. 2, from those who feared the changes would target the homeless, who have nowhere else to go, or the poor who have taken to living in their cars because housing costs are beyond their reach.
“This isn’t anti-homeless or displaced,” Councilmember AnaMarie Avila Farias answered. “We vetted these ordinances through the chief.”
However, she and Vice Mayor Mark Ross urged city staff to look at options for having public restrooms, such as the coin operated, self-cleaning structures in San Francisco.
“There are human needs,” Ross said, reminding the council that at one time, Martinez had restrooms that were available for public use.
He said the new laws were not as strict as those passed recently in Berkeley. Those prohibit sleeping in planter beds or occupying more than a 2 sq. ft. spot on a sidewalk. Other new Berkeley laws forbid leaving personal property in trees or leaving shopping carts in one space for more than an hour, and toughened an existing ban on public urination and defecation.
Protesters responded by erecting a tent encampment they call “Liberty City” at Berkeley’s former city hall building and grounds.
Sappal said one of the intents of the amendments is to encourage those who are homeless or in need to obtain help. Another goal, he said, is to inform them about shelters and other services available in the area, and to assure them of transport to those agencies.
Charges or citations would be made only if someone refused transportation to those services, he explained. “The goal is to help people find their way.”
He reminded the council that the amendments would soften some of the stricter aspects of the codes, such as reducing the number of hours outdoor sleeping is banned, and give officers enforcement options, including ways to keep a violator out of the court system.
On the other hand, the new laws would give his officers clearer authority as they respond to complaints about criminal behavior, some of which he called “pretty offensive.”
Once the new laws are in place, he and other city employees can monitor their effectiveness. “We can always reassess them,” he said.