PNJ: Vote on Pensacola homeless ordinance could be delayed

Written by T.S. Strickland Via pnj.com

“The Pensacola City Council on Thursday will continue to wrestle with the city’s homelessness problem — and councilors have very different ideas about how best to do so.

Two competing proposals — by Council Members Sherri Myers and Larry Johnson — vie for approval on this week’s council agenda. While Myers continues her crusade to roll back a suite of ordinances passed last year affecting the city’s homeless population, Johnson has suggested that any further amendments be postponed until a fledgling task force can address the issue.

Also Thursday, the council will consider approving nearly half a million dollars in local economic development incentives, decide whether or not potbellied pigs should have a place in Pensacola and put the finishing touches on the city’s domestic partnership registry.

On the homelessness front, Myers’ proposal would amend an existing ordinance to eliminate prohibitions on bathing, shaving, sleeping, doing laundry and preparing food in public restrooms. The councilwoman has said that the restrictions, enacted amid widespread protest last year, unfairly target the homeless.

“It’s just a crazy ordinance,” Myers said. “One of the intended purposes of a bathroom is washing up.”

Myers’ efforts to amend the law would be stymied, however, if Johnson’s proposal is approved. The councilman wishes to delay the vote — and pre-empt any future move to eliminate restrictions on tents or other temporary structures on public land until a homelessness task force he spearheaded delivers its final report in eight months.

Johnson has assured his fellow council members that the proposal would have no effect on a related ordinance — proposed by Myers and supported by Mayor Ashton Hayward — that would repeal the city’s much-maligned “blanket ban.” That ordinance — which passed 7-0 earlier this month — will face a second and final reading on Thursday.

It was Hayward’s administration that, just a year ago, spearheaded both the blanket and restroom restrictions. The council passed both ordinances 6-3 last year, with Myers, Charles Bare and Gerald Wingate dissenting.

Local officials’ recent change of heart followed weeks of sustained criticism of the laws.

Speaking Tuesday, Bare said he would not support delaying a vote on the restroom ordinance.

“I think that this ordinance was targeted at a certain group of people, and I just don’t think we should be doing that,” he said. “As a legislative body, I don’t think we should be passing things that limit our ability to do our jobs.”

Myers said she feared that the task force, which she had thought would examine ways to improve services for the homeless, was being co-opted for political reasons. Johnson disputed these characterizations, saying he hoped the task force could change the tenor of the conversation surrounding homelessness in the community.

He [Larry Johnson] questioned the motives and integrity of many of those who had advocated against the blanket ban, characterizing them as disruptive troublemakers who were only looking for the next “YouTube moment.”

“I don’t think they want solutions,” Johnson said. “I think they just want to keep the circus going.”

John Johnson, executive director of the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless, said he was sensitive to the city’s economic concerns, but he also suggested that approving Myers’ proposals would, in itself, be a positive step toward improving the condition of those he served. Johnson, who urged the council against passing the laws last year, added that he did not think an eight-month delay was needed to prove this point.

He noted that the city’s homeless residents currently had only two places where they could perform basic functions like shaving or laundering their clothes — the Alfred Washburn Center and the Waterfront Rescue Mission. Both facilities are located away from the city center.

“I do agree that bringing commerce to the city of Pensacola is important,” Johnson said, “but I also believe that it is important that no one go without the ability to clean themselves.”

In other business Thursday, council members will consider:

• Approving an interlocal agreement with the Escambia County Commission. The agreement would set out the terms by which the county is to loan the city $3.2 million. That funding, along with a further $4.8 million provided directly by the county, are the final piece of funding needed to lure Singapore-based firm ST Aeorspace — and 300 associated jobs — to Pensacola International Airport. If council members accept the agreement Thursday, it will go before commissioners next week for final approval.

• Approving the fees and hours of operation for the city’s newly created domestic partnership registry. As proposed, registrants would pay $60 to register as domestic partners and $30 to amend or terminate their registration. Applications would be accepted by appointment only — Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• Approving $472,800 in local incentives to lure three economic development projects, and 415 potential new jobs, to the city. The three projects, all still in the negotiation phase, include the ST Aerospace facility and the recently announced expansion of Offshore Inland’s operations at the Port of Pensacola. A third effort, codenamed “Project Flash,” promises to bring 15 manufacturing jobs — with an average annual salary of $32,000 each — to the city.

• Approving a lease with Offshore Inland to expand operations at the Port of Pensacola.

• Designating pot-bellied pigs as “domestic animals” in the city code. The ordinance, sponsored by Myers, would limit the animals to one per residence, require owners to neuter their pets and prohibit the breeding of pigs within the city limits.

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