AP NEWS

Officials say opening City Hall to the public won’t change anything

April 2, 2019

A new law opening City Hall to the public without setting a time limit won’t change day-to-day operations or turn the building into a de facto daytime homeless shelter, officials said.

Under the new law, people would be allowed inside City Hall during business hours without a time limit unless they cause a disruption, interfere with city business or the building becomes overcrowded.

The third floor common area, which is accessible by skywalk from River Park Square, the Chase Gallery in the lower level of City Hall and the first floor lobby already are accessible to the public, said Curtis Harris, the city’s facilities manager.

The City Council meeting chambers and a briefing center on the lower levels of the building are not open to the public unless there are meetings.

Harris said anyone who comes to City Hall has been able to sleep on the floor or in a chair without being removed, unless they are blocking an exit or walkway.

Currently, the public can use the public restrooms unless they are bathing, doing drugs or other inappropriate activities.

There were signs posting time limits, but those were removed before the law was approved.

“It’s the same as it has been, we’re not doing anything special to account for any of this,” he said.

Harris said areas where people aren’t allowed to go are accessible only to people with security badges. There have been discussions about putting card readers on the elevators instead of at the doors of offices on secure floors because some people have still accessed restricted areas by taking the elevator to a secured floor and then slipping into an office by following someone with a badge.

Councilwoman Kate Burke said she initially proposed the law out of concern for the lack of warming centers last fall and she had heard that people who appeared to be homeless had been asked to leave City Hall.

After she proposed the law, several warming centers opened and signs limiting how long people can be in City Hall were taken down.

This summer, the city may purchase a building for a new permanent homeless shelter; the intent would be to add more beds than there were before the House of Charity ended its round-the-clock shelter service and lost 150 beds.

The final version the council approved is a compromise that allows anybody to be in City Hall during business hours and creates a committee to discuss issues. Mayor David Condon also has until April 11 to veto the law.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton called the law “much ado about really nothing,” and said she was concerned the policy could encourage the most vulnerable members of the community to spend their days in a space that has no services for them.

“It gets them out of the elements, but it does nothing to improve the quality of their lives,” she said.

Stratton said the same activists behind “Camp Hope” – the homeless encampment that sprang up in front of City Hall to protest the city’s law barring people from sitting or sleeping on sidewalks downtown – could also bring people to City Hall during days when wildfire smoke is thick in Spokane or during frigid weather, which is not the best place for vulnerable people.

It’s too early to say how the law, which won’t go into affect until later this month, will affect city employees or the people who go to City Hall, Stratton said. She said she hopes the new access committee will be able to solve any issues.

City Councilman Breean Beggs said he doesn’t anticipate a law formalizing the public’s access to City Hall will change anything, but if there is an issue the committee was set up to address it. He said there had been confusion because an earlier version of the law spelled out a process for the mayor to turn City Hall into a warming center. That proposal did not make it into the final version.

Burke said the committee, which will include city managers and staff from human resources, security, janitorial, the Human Rights Commission and others, could also look at other access issues, such as spaces for nursing mothers, diaper-changing areas and signs posted in different languages.