Are Burien parks, library truly public if public afraid to use them?

By Eric Mathison

A couple of years back, after-school behavior by some teens in downtown Burien got so bad, some Burien residents said they were afraid to use the Burien Library or visit Town Square Park. Cameras were installed at the library and the situation improved.

On July 21, Burien City Council members discussed another tool to make families feel more comfortable at the library or city parks. City Attorney Craig Knutson introduced a proposed ordinance establishing a process to issue trespass warnings on city and other publicly owned property.

There is already an ordinance allowing business owners to have unruly customers banned from their stores for a certain period of time. The Highline Times Police Blotter often reports on perpetrators “trespassed” from a supermarket or service station.

But Knutson said recent court cases have established an individual’s rights to be on public property. An appeal process is needed for anyone banned from a public place for more than seven days, according to Knutson.

The city attorney emphasized that final ordinance approval is not expected until late August. The city is working with the library officials to see what they would be comfortable with at the Burien Library.

Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz said the proposed ordinance concerned her. Homeless people do not have a place to go, she noted.

“Even if a person is not savory, they have a right to be there,’ Berkowitz declared.

She said the ordinance descriptions of unacceptable behavior are “nebulous.” Knutson replied that the descriptions could be made more specific before the council votes on the law.

Councilmember Gerald Robison favored appeals being heard in district court rather than before a hearing examiner. Knutson said appearing in district court may be more onerous for a defendant. Other cities utilize a hearing examiner, Knutson added.

While campaigning, Councilmember Steve Armstrong said he learned “residents want us to clean up the library and parks. This kind of behavior keeps people from coming to those places.”

Councilmember Debi Wagner asked Police Chief Scott Kimerer why if an individual is doing something illegal or dangerous, the police don’t “haul him away in a paddy wagon.”

Kimerer replied that arresting individual would not solve the problem and would just overburden the courts.

Sometimes teens don’t know how to behave, Kimerer said.

“This ordinance is all about modifying behavior,” Kimerer declared. “This is simply a tool to effectively deal with issues that are constantly coming up.

“This is about frightening, threatening, repetitive and egregious behavior. We’ve been getting complaints for years and years.”

Berkowitz said she might be amenable to shorter bans and more positive ways such as mental health treatment to address the problem.

“A carrot, not a stick,” she summarized.

Councilmember Robison concluded, “Public spaces are not really public if the public is afraid to come.”

In other business, lawmakers approved a new 15-year Seattle City Light franchise agreement that will leave customer bills about the same and not create extra revenue for the city.

Under the agreement, City Light will charge Burien customers six percent more than it charges Seattle customers. In turn, City Light will rebate to Burien four percent of revenue generated by Burien customers.

A higher-cost option of eight/six percent would have meant higher costs for Burien customers with $400,000 additional revenue to Burien.

Council members are struggling with how to deal with a structural deficit in the city’s budget.

With legal limitations on current revenue sources and predicted rising costs, the city is projected to run out of reserve funds by 2019.

Councilmember Nancy Tosta cast the only dissenting vote.

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