City officials said they don’t expect many arrests under a newly adopted law making it illegal for people to lie on, sit on, or otherwise block a city sidewalk.
City Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen said the goal isn’t to target the homeless and vagrants in the downtown area — though nearly nobody who attended a packed public hearing Tuesday night at City Hall believed that.
He said he doesn’t believe many people will be arrested, and anyone who is arrested won’t be treated harshly.
“This is a clarification to make clear that if someone is sitting or lying in the sidewalk and is asked to move, they have to move,” Mathiesen said.
The problem exists, he said, or the ordinance wouldn’t have been developed.
“It does give law enforcement [the ability] to say you’ve got to move along, or we’ll have to arrest you,” said Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco.
The ordinance, which sets a fine of up to $100 for a first offense and makes repeated violations a misdemeanor with heavier fines and a potential jail sentence, was adopted by a 4-1 vote. Mayor Joanne Yepsen voted against it, citing the potential for fines and jail time for repeat offenders.
“This is well-intended and there is a need for the ordinance, but this is too harsh,” Yepsen said.
Most of those who spoke at the public hearing were against it, or said there were better solutions than criminalizing behavior engaged in by panhandlers.
“The problem still exists if you take it off Broadway,” speaker Sue Martin said.
But Todd Garofano, president of the Saratoga County Convention and Tourism Bureau, said his group supports the ban on sitting or blocking the sidewalk.
“This is an issue that’s been going on for a couple of years now and is getting worse,” he said.
“I do a lot of walking downtown. I see this as a safety problem,” said resident David Bronner, who recounted a recent encounter with a scruffy-looking man who became verbally abusive when questioned.
Bronner added that the situation with panhandling has recently improved, possibly because of an increased presence of police officers on foot patrol.
The number of speakers said a more comprehensive plan is needed for helping the homeless and vagrants in the city.
Mathiesen, however, said the law doesn’t target homelessness, but a specific kind of behavior.
“It isn’t about homelessness, it’s about not causing an obstruction,” Mathiesen said. “People have the right to walk down the sidewalk and not have to walk around people. This isn’t being directed at anybody.”
The city attorney has determined that while free-speech protections mean the city can’t prohibit panhandling unless it becomes aggressive, the city does have the right to adopt a sidewalk ordinance.
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said there have been instances of pedestrians tripping over someone who was prone on the sidewalk. “We have a very busy downtown. We have a lot of pedestrians walking around. You cannot just have people lying down in the middle of the sidewalk, sitting down in the middle of the sidewalk,” she said.
Under the new law, people accused of blocking a sidewalk are to be warned, and if they don’t move could face a first-offense fine of $50 to $100.
A second offense could bring a $300 to $500 fine, a 10-day jail sentence, or community service sentence.
Mathiesen noted that there are a number of exceptions in the law, allowing people to sit for medical reasons or while waiting in a line. He said it also won’t apply to street musicians, who must perform near the edge of the sidewalk. What is prohibited, he said, is willfully blocking the sidewalk.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, firstname.lastname@example.org or @gazettesteve on Twitter.