Council withdraws bill that would have imposed fines, jail time
Like a pedestrian in Love Park, a group of skateboarders knocked down a proposal that would impose fines as high as $2,000 and a 90-day jail sentence for individuals who deface or damage public property, memorials or art, at City Council’s meeting on Thursday.
“It turns our kids into criminals — not for doing drugs, or engaging in violent crime, but rather for participating in an athletic and productive activity, something that enhances one’s health and well-being,” said Robert Williams, owner of Exit Skate Shop in the Northern Liberties, who led the charge in council chambers.
He was one of a group of seven skateboarders who appealed to Council to strike down the proposal, arguing that the penalties were too severe and that the definitions included in the bill were too vague. Williams argued that the bill did not define what made a work of art, or even what a public structure was. That left skateboarders vulnerable to improper arrest, he said.
“The ability to determine what is or what isn’t art, publicly accessible or private owned is not a learned ability. And, the children of the city, some of which are skateboarders, have not naturally developed this ability and also, quite frankly, I believe that the arresting officers have not either,” he said. “They are not qualified to determine what is or what isn’t art.”
The bill was an administration proposal introduced on the mayor’s behalf by Councilman David Oh, who defended the concept — but after requests from Council members Jannie Blackwell and Bill Green, quickly agreed to hold the proposal.
It would impose a $75 fine or arrest for anyone vandalizing or destroying public or private memorials or artwork. It also gave judges the authority to impose fines up to $2,000 and 90 days in jail. Though Oh said the bill was not limited to penalizing skateboarders, opponents said they felt singled out.
“No one is trying to prevent people from skateboarding or doing health activities,” Oh said. “But there is what we understand to be scared ground.”
He urged skateboarders to “police themselves” and use more common sense and good manners when skateboarding.
Blackwell, largely echoing the objections of skateboarders, opposed the bill in committee and said she could not support it if it came up for a vote. She objected to the fact that the proposal did not make the posting of no skateboarding signs part of the law, and that many of the terms in the bill were not adequately defined. She added that the city already has a law against defacement of public property that includes a $300 fine.
“Nowhere are we talking about that,” she said. “What we have done with this legislation is talk about imprisoning people for 90 days. We’re talking about raising the fine to $2,000. Certainly skateboarders are picked on and singled out.”
She said that she might support some sort of similar bill.
Green said he was swayed by several of the skateboarders’ points during the public comment period.
In agreeing to hold the bill, Oh said he thought it wise to “make it more clear” and urged skateboarders and other interested parties to give council their point of view.
The instant response by Oh was unique in council annals. And, at the behest of Councilman Jim Kenney, who quipped that it was the first time “something happened during the public comment period,” the item was placed on what’s called the suspended calendar making it off limits to further public comment during Council meetings. That spares Council members for having to hear about the issue over several successive weeks until the bill can be re-worded and again brought up for a vote.
Council’s public comment period is about a year old and something that members opposed, but were forced to adopt after a court ruled that the public must be allowed to address members.
In other news, Council approved the creation of a banking review committee, which would allow members to examine the lending practices of the banks it does business with in an effort to end “banking disparities.”
The move was suggested by Councilman W. Wilson Goode and praised by several groups that urged the city to go a step further and create a public bank.
Goode said committee will aid Council in enforcing another of his proposals, now law, the Fair Lending and Community Reinvestment Ordinance, which requires city depository banks to annually submit goals for lending in low and moderate-income communities, as well as a long-term strategic plan to address any lending disparities disclosed in an annual study.
“City Council has the authority to designate city depositories and fairly broad power to place conditions on such depositories,” he said.