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?


  1. Alley, you are a blessing to all of us. Thank you so much.

  2. I'm a little concerned about the notice. I was looking at the 9th Circuit ruling and there is this-Id. at *7. The City is also “directed to leave a notice in a
    prominent place for any property taken on the belief that it is
    abandoned, including advising where the property is being
    kept and when it may be claimed by the rightful owner.” Id.

    Question-If people wrote out notices saying something to the effect that
    "This property is NOT abandoned" with a date or updated weekly to say that there are people here for that week, could the police or anyone actually deem it abandoned? I am just wondering if a few signs posted out and laminated with indelible markers to hand out with them would do anyone any good.

    I imagine you didn't write out the entire notice they gave you, but I would hope that it gives contact information. I would also hope that people will pay close attention to the events in TIMING, as I am guessing that the parks road crews do not go out in the middle of night on Fridays or Saturdays.
    It bugs me. I am sure I could find bikes and picnic tables "abandoned" if I just went to look for them.

  3. I hear what you're saying. I don't think that people leaving their own notices would work due to the simple fact that at least in terms of tents on public land, camping is still illegal. The city does have the right to remove property that they do consider to be abandoned, and if it is not, to make contact with the person and tell them that they are under legal obligation to remove their property.

    I do have a copy of the notice that they're supposedly posting. I didn't post a picture of it because it's on my kitchen counter in Eugene and I'm currently in Montana. The notice does not give contact info, and does say that the property will be disposed of. However, to be fair, the notice they're using has a revision date of September 2011, and I'm hoping that they revise it ASAP to change the wording and give contact info.

    I received a letter from the mayor this morning, stating that she is doubtful that the city has the capacity to store people's belongings. With all due respect to her, she doesn't seem to realize that they simply do not have a choice in this matter.

  4. Well if they don't have the capacity to store people's belongings, they should just leave them be. :)
    They could save themselves and everyone else a lot of bother if they leave things alone if they aren't a safety issue.
    Otherwise they will simply have to find a way to store things for the 90 days.

    Opportunity village was on the news tonight, some kind of meeting happened.