Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shifting Blame, Taking Responsibility

The letter I wrote to the Mayor and City Council (in my previous post) about Jim Finn's situation (and in the bigger picture, about the City violating the constitutional rights of the homeless) led to well over a week's worth of back-and-forth between myself and the Mayor, the Sheriff's Department, the city attorney, and a number of concerned citizens, many who wrote their own letters expressing their anger about the situation. My letter had been forwarded far and wide, and somehow even ended up in this week's Eugene Weekly, despite the fact that I never sent it to them for publication.

The good news is that on Monday, October 15th, the City of Eugene compensated Mr. Finn for his losses. Jim will now be able to replace his belongings and hopefully stay dry this winter. However, this only happened after multiple attempts by the City to shift the blame to the County when in fact it was the City who ultimately was responsible for disposing of Mr. Finn's possessions. While I am happy (and Jim Finn is even happier) that he was finally compensated, it bothered me to watch as city officials twisted the facts to mask the truth in terms of who was ultimately responsible.

The official chain of responsibility, as now acknowledged by the city, is as follows: Parks and Open Space contracts the Lane County Sheriff's Road Crew to clean the parks. The road crew gathers what they find, drives it back to Parks and Open Space headquarters, puts it in the Parks dumpster, and Parks employees ultimately dispose of everything in the county landfill.

The city attorney, however, initially related a different story to the Mayor. On the afternoon of the 8th, I was forwarded an email from City Attorney Glenn Klein addressed to the Mayor and City Council, which stated the following:

"I wanted to let you know that we have been discussing the case with city staff and reviewing city policies almost immediately following the 9th circuit’s decision. Within a day of the decision, I was communicating with EPD to ensure that EPD policies are consistent with the 9th circuit’s ruling. Kathryn Brotherton also has been working with parks and open space (POS) staff to ensure that its policies are consistent. Generally, when POS staff have come across an illegal camp in a city park or open space, they post a notice on the campsite stating that the campsite is illegal and that if it is not moved the City will remove it; if the campsite is still there when POS staff return a day or two later, POS staff remove the property."

This statement contradicted what John Clark at Parks and Open Space had told me a few days earlier, as detailed in my previous post. Clark said that their policy was to immediately collect and dispose of possessions. This also contradicted what Jim Finn had told me, which was that he had received no warning notice whatsoever.

At the City Council meeting on Monday, October 8, a few hours after I had received this email, Mayor Piercy addressed the situation at the conclusion of the Public Forum, after it was brought up during the forum. The mayor expressed her regret at the situation, but stressed that it was the county, not the city, that was in violation and that she was told that the city does not dispose of possessions as a policy.

In the meantime, a member of a local church who had received my initial letter as a forward had written the Mayor and Council and also filed a citizen's complaint with the Lane County Sheriff's Department. Mayor Piercy's initial response to his letter on October 8th was as follows:

"Just so you know, this was the county, not the city. Our folks leave a message before any removal occurs and belongings like bikes will be stored. That does not help Mr. Finn."

The next morning, I received a call from Sgt. Buckwald of the Lane County Sheriff's Department. Sgt. Buckwald was the head of the road crew, and was investigating the complaint. He wanted to know if I could bring Mr. Finn in for a meeting. I said I'd do my best to make that happen and went downtown to find Jim. That afternoon, Jim and I, along with another local advocate, sat down with Sgt. Buckwald. What we learned at that meeting further contradicted the City's story.

According to Sgt. Buckwald, the city had contacted him only the day before (Monday the 8th) to provide him with warning notices for the road crew to distribute. Buckwald made it clear that they had never been informed of the 9th Circuit ruling or subsequent change in policy, and that he had only received the new directive on Monday. Buckwald stressed that the road crew operates under direction from the city and that when they removed Mr. Finn's possessions, they did it as per official city policy. Sgt. Buckwald was very upset when I told him that that the Mayor had stated publicly the night before that the County was responsible as opposed to the city. "That alarms me", he said to me.

It was clear to me by the end of that meeting that not only did the City essentially bear full responsibility, they were also trying to cover their ass, so to speak. When I got home that evening, I fired off another letter to Mayor Piercy, which said the following:


I hate to make your life more complicated, but the story I just got from the county points the blame squarely on the city.

Jim Finn and I just sat down with Sgt. Buckwald, who heads the Lane County sheriff's crew. He told me that he was informed only yesterday by Parks that they need to be putting warning notices up, and they had never done it before. He also told me that when the road crew picks everything up, they take it over to POS on Roosevelt, and Parks is the one who disposes of it, not the county road crew.

I should also add that I have a copy of the notice that Parks gave Sgt. Buckwald. The notice states the following: "If you do not remove your campsite immediately, you are likely to be faced with a citation and your camping equipment and other items in the vicinity will be considered abandoned and will be disposed of."

So again, the city disposed of Mr. Finn's possessions, not the county. Glenn Klein may think that Parks was informed of the 9th Circuit ruling, but Parks has been disposing of found possessions. So either the message wasn't communicated as Glenn thinks it was, or Parks willfully ignored it. Either way, the city is legally responsible for this situation.

How does the city plan on making this right?"

I received no immediate response from the mayor. However, on Wednesday morning, I received the following email from the City Attorney:

"Alley- Please ask Mr. Finn to contact Cathy Joseph or Jan Bergquist in the City’s Risk Management Division. Cathy and Jan handle claims involving the City. I spoke with Cathy yesterday to let her know that Mr. Finn might be contacting her about getting compensation. Since we don’t have contact information for him, I am contacting you."

My very last stop before leaving for Montana that afternoon was to find Jim and tell him the news. Sabra and I met him in Kesey Square. Jim was delighted on one hand, but worried about the timeframe and clearly in survival mode. "Its going to rain on Friday. Is this going to happen by Friday?", he asked. I didn't know what to tell him. Sabra graciously offered to help Jim through the compensation process. I thanked her profusely and then drove to Missoula.


As I mentioned at the beginning, Jim Finn was compensated by the City on Monday, October 15th, for an amount that he was happy with. However, this issue is far from over. The same day that Jim was compensated, I received an email from another homeless advocate who volunteers at one of the Sunday church breakfasts for the homeless. He wrote, "Alley, a guy at the Sunday breakfast today said that the police had "shredded my tent'. Cut it to pieces. I think it was Saturday night."

Mayor Piercy's final statement on this issue was as follows: "It appears that city did follow up on court ruling but the dispersal of information was not thorough."

City Attorney Glenn Klein's email of October 8th stated that he "was communicating with EPD to ensure that EPD policies are consistent with the 9th circuit’s ruling."

Communicating? How long does it take to communicate the fact that disposing of or destroying the possessions of the homeless is unconstitutional?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Punk ass bitches, indeed.

A few days ago, I was riding my bike down 11th Avenue, past the corner of Willamette right by the LTD station when I saw this man on the corner holding a sign. "Punk ass bitches, eh?", I thought. Must be a good story there.

It turned out to be quite a sad story. Jim had been camping down by the river at Delta Ponds for a while now. Camping is illegal anywhere in the city, but there are a few spots where one is less likely to be bothered, and Delta Ponds is one of those places. But on Tuesday afternoon, while he was away for a while, the Parks Department cleaned up his campsite, which contained everything he owned, and disposed of it.

Not only is such an action unethical and inhumane, its also unconstitutional, thanks to a landmark ruling by the Ninth Circuit last month concerning a similar situation in Los Angeles. The government does not have the right to dispose of personal possessions... it constitutes illegal seizure without due process under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Unfortunately, violating the constitutional rights of the homeless is de rigueur as far as the City of Eugene is concerned. I was saddened but not the least bit surprised to hear this recent development in this so-called "Human Rights City". It has been a longstanding policy of both the Eugene Police Department as well as Parks and Open Space to dispose of possessions found on public property, but I foolishly assumed that in light of the Ninth Circuit ruling, the city would have changed its policy.

I called up the Parks Department and spoke with them, and they had no knowledge whatsoever of the recent court ruling and didn't seem concerned about the fact that their actions were unconstitutional. Ignorance is no excuse when someone's rights are violated. Nice way to kick a man when he's already down.

And so, I wrote a letter, an "intense verbal spanking" as my friend Sabra put it. Sometimes government needs to be spanked. Sometimes they also need to be sued, and I hope that Jim explores that option. I can't help him sue, but I can gladly spank.

My letter to Mayor Piercy and the City Council reads as follows:

October 5, 2012

Greetings. I'll start this one with a quote:

"We conclude that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments protect homeless persons from government seizure and summary destruction of their unabandoned, but momentarily unattended, personal property." Lavan v. City of Los Angeles 

In early September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Lavan v. City of Los Angeles that confiscating and destroying the personal property of the homeless constitutes unreasonable seizure. This ruling is legally binding upon the State of Oregon. The full opinion can be found here:

Last Tuesday, James Finn, a homeless man who sleeps on the river at Delta Ponds, left his belongings for a short period of time while attending to other business. Sometime in the early afternoon, a Lane County Sheriff's crew "cleaned up" his belongings and disposed of them in the county landfill, in violation of his constitutional rights as set forth in Lavan. Among the possessions seized were his bicycle, bike cart, tent, backpack, tarps and tools, and the flag that had been draped over his father's coffin at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mr. Finn spoke to several people at Parks and Open Space, who told him that it was their policy to confiscate and dispose of property that they find unattended in city parks. I learned of this situation Thursday afternoon, and on Friday I spoke to John Clark at Parks and Open Space, who told me that the department seizes and disposes belongings as current policy, that they knew nothing of the ruling, and that they were not told anything by the city and/or county regarding a change to the policy.

My first question: why hasn't general council for the city and/or county informed the Parks Dept. that this behavior is unconstitutional? The court ruling made national news, and many in the activist/advocacy community are aware of it. Surely local government can't be ignorant of such a significant ruling. The facts and circumstances here are clear-cut. The Parks Department (and EPD) have no choice but to immediately refrain from seizing people's possessions. And in the case of seemingly abandoned possessions, the City needs to leave notice of seizure, adequately store the seized possessions and allow the owners to come forth. The current policy in place by the Parks Department unquestionably violates the constitutional rights of homeless people in the City of Eugene.

My second question: how is the City and County going to make amends for the violation of Mr. Finn's Fourth Amendment rights? As I see it, either the Sheriff's Department needs to start digging through the landfill, or the City of Eugene and/or Lane County needs to adequately compensate Mr. Finn for the destruction of his possessions. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating Mr. Finn's constitutional rights.

This situation is completely unacceptable and needs to be immediately rectified. I look forward to hearing how local government plans on accomplishing that, and I expect that the Parks policy will be immediately changed so that such blatant constitutional violations do not land the city in federal court.

With regards,
Alley Valkyrie