Council Backs Sidewalk Sleeping Ban

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday voted behind closed doors to appeal a recent federal court ruling that struck down the city's prohibition on sleeping on sidewalks.

The prohibition, part of the city's attempt to reclaim downtown from the homeless, was overturned by an appeals court last month.

The council's vote was notable because it was taken in closed session and the results were not publicly announced by the city clerk. Several council members later told reporters about the vote but disagreed on whether it was 7 to 3 or 8 to 3.

Also, it revealed a growing split among elected officials over just what the city's policy on the homeless should be.

The city attorney's office already had decided to appeal the court's decision, and it remained unclear whether, under the City Charter, the council had any real say in the matter.

The closed-door debate revealed a rift between the two council members whose districts each include parts of skid row: Jan Perry and Jose Huizar.

Perry believes the law is a necessary tool for law enforcement. She doesn't think Huizar "understands the complexities of the neighborhood yet," Perry said after the meeting. "He's going to have to dig a little deeper."

Huizar, who voted against appealing the ruling, responded: "I've worked in the skid row area since I was in sixth grade; I know skid row very, very well, and I represent a majority of skid row. I'm surprised that she would make such a statement."

Last month, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2 to 1 that the city's prohibition, dating from 1968, against sleeping on sidewalks was "cruel and unusual punishment."

The court said homeless people should not be blamed for sleeping on sidewalks if they had no alternative because shelter beds were filled.

After the ruling, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office told the council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that it intended to appeal the decision to a full 15-judge panel of the 9th Circuit court.

The basis of the appeal: The decision conflicts with another appeals court ruling, according to the city attorney's memo, obtained by The Times.

On Tuesday, the issue took another twist when the council opted to discuss the appeal in closed session, purportedly not to reveal legal strategy, and then did not announce the vote or make the vote public because, the city clerk's office said, it was a confidential action taken in closed session.

The decision to go into closed session prompted Councilman Bill Rosendahl to seek an open discussion, but he lost, 11 to 1.

"I think the city attorney's office has too much influence over when things should go into closed session, " Rosendahl said in an interview later. "I thought that most of what we talked about could have been talked about in public."

While the public stewed in the City Hall corridors, the council deliberated for 75 minutes and then voted for the appeal.

Huizar, Rosendahl and Jack Weiss said they voted against appealing the decision.

In an interview later, Huizar said he didn't believe the little-used ordinance was necessary because there are other laws that can be used.

He also said the city attorney's rationale for appealing was that if the ruling were to stand, a homeless person could challenge other city ordinances -- such as the one against public urination -- on the basis that they have a right because they are homeless.

Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the city attorney, would not comment on legal strategy and said, "We're not going to get into characterizing our position yet."

On a radio program Tuesday afternoon, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton praised the appeal, saying "My concern is that the 9th Circuit is taking a tool out of our very limited tool bag to deal with this issue."

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