The new members of the Burien City Council promised their supporters a better Burien, and they are starting with the repeal of a controversial ordinance that allows police officers to bar people from parks and other public property.
The Burien City Council repealed the ordinance on Feb. 5. Few were surprised by the decision; the majority of the now-left-leaning council did not support the trespass ordinance. They opposed it not only for its overreach in depriving people of their civil liberties and rights, but also for its vague language that could include myriad behaviors.
The council repealed the ordinance in a 4-3 vote with Councilmembers Nancy Tosta, Bob Edgar and Lucy Krakowiak opposing. The repeal will take effect 60 days after the Feb. 5 vote.
The shift follows the November election of four councilmembers: Jimmy Matta — who was elected as mayor — Pedro Olguin, Krystal Marx and Nancy Tosta, an incumbent. All four councilmembers lean left. Their wins in November shifted the Burien City Council from a seven-member body that appeared to lean conservative to one that more strongly leans liberal.
The ordinance allowed police officers to trespass people for causing unreasonable disturbances in public places, such as being loud, using public restrooms for bathing or shaving, or using electronic devices in a disruptive manner. It also allowed officers to trespass people for activities that are already illegal, such as selling or using alcohol or drugs, or assault.
Ordinance deeply divided Burien
The ordinance was controversial. Councilmembers have been divided on it since it was passed in 2014. Some residents supported it, while others opposed. The American Civil Liberties Union called for the city to repeal the ordinance in multiple letters since 2014, including one sent Feb. 1 of this year.
The divide illustrates the different interpretations about what exactly the ordinance addresses. People who supported the repeal said that it criminalized homelessness while those who opposed it said that it keeps Burien’s public spaces safe.
Many residents and business owners expressed safety concerns during public comment at the meeting. Business owners said without a trespass ordinance, people will loiter in front of their businesses and deter customers and make their storefront appear unsafe. Parents said they were uncomfortable letting their children play in parks alone.
“I had people in the alley behind my business doing drugs [and saw] prostitutes. My van had been vandalized several times,” said Robyn Desimone, owner of flower shop Iris & Peony. “It was a daily occurence and a daily problem.”
Attendee Quinton Thompson said the extra law enforcement calls due to the trespass ordinance would compete with more serious emergencies.
“On this homelessness stuff, the digging things out of the garbage and recycle bins, that is not an emergency for our 911 calls,” he said. “It will be a low priority call.”
Because the ordinance is heavily based on the officer’s discretion, supporters said that it fosters discrimination based on race, mental health and socioeconomic status.
Mayor Jimmy Matta questioned trespassing people for using electronics or communication devices, noting that the ordinance does not specify how loud something must be to be considered offensive.
“If I’m in a public place listening to mariachi music and someone is offended, am I gonna to get a trespass warning?” Matta asked.
The Burien City Council revised the ordinance a few times. The first version allowed officers to trespass people for smelling bad or for offensive bodily hygiene. A revised version abandoned that vocabulary but still had vague language that made the ordinance subjective; officers could treat people disproportionately.
Tosta defended the ordinance, noting that it allowed officers to trespass people without creating a criminal record; the officer simply gives them a warning. She said without the ordinance, officers would have to arrest people and give them citations that will stay on their record.
“It does not criminalize homelessness,” said Tosta, who is in favor of keeping the ordinance. “We share public spaces and need to share them safely for all residents.”
Krakowiak added, “It seems like we’re going backwards.”
Councilmember Pedro Olguin weighed in and said even without the ordinance, officers can still give people warnings without resorting to citations or arrests.
“It doesn’t make sense in my mind to criminalize people who are already marginalized,” he said.
Matta expressed that it is hard to gauge because he is not seeing what the officers are seeing. He suggested that the council go on ride-alongs during the final 60 days of the ordinance being in effect.
“Some people think I want to live in a criminal city,” Matta said, adding that he wants drug dealers arrested and not trespassed. “No. I have a family; I have kids. I want them to be safe just as you do for yours. The police are there to protect us, but we also don’t want people’s rights violated.”
The face of Burien is changing
The repeal is among many changes Burien faced over the past several months.
In the most recent election, Burien voters elected the council’s first two Latinx members, Pedro Olguin and Jimmy Matta. Matta is the first Latinx mayor of Burien in history (the Burien City Council elects one of its seven members to be mayor).
Olguin said Burien voters were motivated to uphold values and mobilize the community during a time of strife.
“To me [the turnout] symbolizes those who were spun out of the community and how they felt about not being part of the conversation,” Olguin said, referring to the near-equal turnout for both parties in the general election. “They felt the pressure to make the community a better place for everyone.”
Deputy Mayor Austin Bell said the shift in power will bring in more perspectives on policies as muted voices will be able to emerge with the new council. He anticipates that the council will discuss a junk-vehicle ordinance next, which allows the city to tow vehicles placed on residents’ properties that do not run.
“[The city] was turning more into a homeowner association instead of a government,” Bell said, referencing the junk vehicle and trespass ordinances, which seem to base criteria on subjective standards for city aesthetic.
Burien is a growing city with people moving in from urban areas who contribute to its diverse community. People of color and Hispanic people make up 49 percent of the population. Although Burien has made national headlines for its stark split between conservatives and progressives in its population, some councilmembers and residents say that the answer is not clear-cut.
“We are portrayed as a racist community by the press,” Tosta said. “I’ve lived here for 20 years, but I don’t think that’s true. People say we’re a conservative community, but I think we are just left of center.”
Proactive resident Nancy Kick, 46, who moved to Burien in 2014, says that Burienites have mostly been progressive during her stay, partly because more progressives are moving there as Seattle becomes less affordable. While she sees that Burienites talk a lot about local topics such as affordable housing and homelessness, she also noticed some activities gaining on opposite sides when President Donald Trump started his campaign.
“I can see that local politics mirrors or mimics national politics,” Kick said.
Tosta, Olguin and Bell agreed.
Matta has been a Burien resident for two decades, living in conservative and liberal communities. While he believes national politics drives divisive rhetoric, he also acknowledges there will always be racist people. He recalled an experience in a diner in which he was introduced as mayor, but two people asked whether he was a cook there.
“I cannot control having black hair. I cannot control having brown skin. I cannot control speaking two languages,” Matta said, adding that these people are also expressing their right to free speech. “I cannot help that they don’t see me as American.”
Congress failed immigrants, and it is more important than ever for local leaders to step up, Matta said. In contrast to the way the media paints Burien, he — as someone who lives there — thinks otherwise.
He and all of us are witnessing Burien’s generational shift, and we can see it on the council: Matta said he is Generation X and that Bell, Olguin and Marx are millennials.
“If it were so bad here, we wouldn’t have Pedro Olguin, Jimmy Matta, two Latinos. We wouldn’t have Krystal Marx who is bisexual,” said Matta. “If we had that much craziness the press portrays, we wouldn’t have multicultural foods, multicultural places and multicultural people here.”
In Burien, there are going to be differences in opinion and with the new council, he understands that they must lead with compassion. He is finding a balance for poor, rich, homeless, mentally ill people and all other populations so Burienites can live peacefully and happily.
It has been about a month since Matta has officially been mayor, and he already sees a product of the shift. He said young Latino kids pointed at him the other day and said in awe, ‘You’re the mayor and you speak Spanish?!’
“I’m giving them hope,” he chuckled. “We’re gonna keep moving forward.”
Wait, there's more. Check out the full Feb. 14 - Feb. 20 issue.