Referencing public safety concerns amid echoes of the catch-phrase “nothing good happens in a park after dark,” a split Merced City Council on Monday night moved forward with an ordinance to change hours of use at public parks throughout the city.
The Council voted 4-3 for the drafting of an ordinance to close parks to the public after 7 p.m. during the winter months (Nov. 1 to Feb. 28/29) with a morning opening time of 6 a.m. During summer months (March 1 to Oct. 31) park closures would be at 9 p.m. with a morning opening time of 6 a.m.
Exceptions include city-sponsored events, annual permit holders in parks with stadium-style lighting, and bike and other pedestrian paths when used “solely for passive recreational activities of walking, bicycling, running or jogging.”
In the decision, council members Kevin Blake, Mike Serratto, Delray Shelton and Fernando Echevarria voted YES. Their colleagues Jill McLeod, Anthony Martinez and Mayor Mike Murphy vote NO.
A majority of council members also directed staff to study the possible inclusion of “extended” evening hours for lighted sports facilities such as basketball courts and skate park areas.
It’s not a done deal yet. The park-hour ordinance will have a second reading at an upcoming council meeting, and any new language added to the document at that time may delay implementation until yet another council meeting.
Monday night was not the first time city leaders debated changing the nightly curfew at city owned parks, which is currently 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. year round.
“The status quo, I think, is something none of us want,” Mayor Murphy admitted before arguing unsuccessfully for a compromise winter closing time at 8 p.m., though he though it should be 9 p.m.
Councilwoman McLeod appeared to hold the most moderate opinion of the night.
“I have mixed feelings about this,” she said. “For the most part, people should have the right to be in the parks when they want to be in the parks, but we do have a safety problem, and it’s become significant enough that the people who might be using the parks are not using the parks. … I think we’ve got to start somewhere. I’m willing to compromise even though limiting what people can do with their own time is not really my favorite thing.”
McLeod asked for a staff review of the new hours within six months to a year.
Four residents who spoke up during the hearing were critical of the ordinance, including two who described the city’s growing homeless population as the true target of the park-hour crackdown.
“I see this as a short-sided solution,” said Candice Adam-Medefind, the executive director of Healthy House and a board member of the county’s Continuum of Care. “It’s a little bit like removing all the benches from the park. … We are kinda actually inconveniencing ourselves and our rights rather than bothering the homeless at times. …
“I also think that this is something that can expose the city to some liability if the court looked at the motivation behind this type of ordinance. You might want to consider that. …
“It provides real challenges for law enforcement who I know are incredibly weary of arresting and citing homeless persons to no avail. I also don’t think it’s a particularly humane or constructive response especially when we don’t have alternate facilities or beds for the homeless to go. …
Adam-Medefind urged the Council to consider creating a “FEMA-style shelter” where the city can start moving people out of encampments and into an area where tent cabins could be set up, along with security and basic services.
“I was talking with a nationally renown homeless consultant today who said where they had done these types of FEMA-style facilities, they have found that 70 percent of the people within three days will find their way out of the facilities,” she said.
Homeless advocate Renee Davenport spoke next, and she agreed that bad things can happen in darkness — but not only in the park, but also on streets, parking lots and alleyways across the city.
“I personally feel like this is motivated to get homeless people out of the park,” she told the council. “But there are other people who use the park. … What does all this mean? … How is this going to be implemented as far as getting information to the public? Whether you are homeless, a UC professor, or a family, how are you going to get that information out there?”
Councilman Martinez later commended Davenport for making a “brilliant point.”
“If we make this kind of shift, there needs to be a strategy on how we are going to inform the public,” he said.
Two members of the audience spoke in favor of the new ordinance, including former city employee Lee Pevsner who broke protocol for the Council Chambers when he got up and brandished a sign with the catch-phrase, “Nothing good happens in the park after dark.”
Pevsner was quickly rebuked by the mayor but not before showing the sign to the audience in attendance and those watching on TV.
Sair Lara also came to the podium. He heads up a 26th Street neighborhood group that has been complaining about the condition of Applegate Park and people “camping” throughout the day and into the night on park lawns.
“Our parks are in dire need of help,” Lara said. “They are not up to the standards they can be. Our restrooms are really bad. So this is a public health and safety issue.”
He showed a cell phone picture of Applegate Park that he took from his home balcony at 6 p.m.
“You can see it’s completely dark,” he said. “So what activity is somebody doing at the park at 6 p.m.? … There’s no need for anybody to be out there.”
However, resident Ben Kurtz disagreed.
“I can think of having a picnic and staying after sunset,” he said, “Or going stargazing. Or maybe I have a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee that I want to play with. As someone who works long hours, I often get home after the parks close for the evening. … I think it would be nice to enjoy the whole park, and not just the designated paths.”