Chico and the Yes Man

Federal judge ridicules the City Council and its lawyer for their shameful, unconstitutional laws

Photo courtesy of Blogtrepreneur (via Flickr)

Following Chico City Attorney Vince Ewing’s recent smackdown in federal court, we can’t help but think about the one who got away. We’re referring to the former city attorney, Andrew Jared, whom the City Council conservatives fired a few months back.

We can almost picture Jared in his home office reading over the transcripts of the April 23 hearing in U.S. District Court based on a complaint filed by Legal Services of Northern California. Jared pours himself a glass of cognac and takes a deep breath with the resplendent ease that comes with dodging a bullet—in this case, not having to stand up for the city’s indefensible efforts to curb homelessness.

The timing of Jared’s sacking gives the appearance he was cut loose for advising elected leaders that the municipality would run afoul of the law of the land—that is, federal law—should they order the police to boot destitute people from public spaces.

Such evictions began right around the time Jared left town and the city rehired Ewing, the previous conservative-majority council’s “yes man.” Ewing drafted the city’s ordinances prohibiting sitting/lying, camping and storing property in public spaces. Defenders of the laws maintain that they apply to all citizens, but in practice everyone knows they affect only those who are unsheltered.

As the record shows, going back to at least 2014, the laws were created in direct response to indigent park-dwellers who were viewed as blight. Right about that time, during the recovery from the Great Recession, the region’s burgeoning homeless population overtook the budget deficit as the community’s No. 1 issue.

If Jared did indeed warn the council of the city’s potential liability, as we suspect, he was right. The federal judge overseeing the case—George W. Bush appointee Morrison C. England Jr.—was crystal clear that Chico’s laws don’t pass legal muster. Citing the city code related to the three aforementioned ordinances, England pointed out that the only way a person could avoid breaking them would be “to walk 24 hours a day and [have] no personal property.”

In other words, it’s impossible to live outdoors and comply with them.

“So that means that you’re violating the Martin v. Boise case, which is precedent in this circuit,” he said.

To wit, enforcing such policies violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Doing so also violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

For years, the CN&R has warned elected leaders these laws are unconstitutional. We’re thankful LSNC has put the city on notice, and we’re fairly certain this won’t be the only action on the matter. Chico likely will face another reckoning—a class action suit for civil rights violations—and we expect it will be quite costly.

In court, Ewing admitted that the laws are unconstitutional. There’s no taking that back. He offered up a weak defense, echoing the council’s narrative that indigent people refuse to access shelter beds. The message is that homelessness is a life choice—a theory that applies to so few members of the local population that it’s basically negligible.

Still, we heard some serious revisionist history in the courtroom. Case in point: Ewing told the judge that open beds were taken into consideration when the laws in question were drafted. The CN&R challenges him to cite such discussions from the record. Spoiler alert: They never happened. We know this because we covered every single City Council meeting on the subject.

The facts simply do not bear out the city’s take. The most glaring thread we’ll pull to unravel this bit of fiction is to point out that the few dozen shelter beds now open in Chico became available only recently—after the city began its enforcement sweeps.

The city and LSNC have agreed to meet with the goal of coming to some sort of resolution, and we expect the council will be a bit more open-minded now that its actions are being scrutinized by a federal judge. That certainly would be a change from the past seven long years.

In that time, the council could not be reasoned with to do the right thing. Nothing—not this newspaper’s countless editorials, not homeless advocates’ public comments and protests, not even the fact that people are literally dying in plain sight—has propelled the panel to take the legally sound and moral path forward. What shame these leaders have brought upon the community—something that can never be undone.

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2 Comments

  1. If you could get the Bootlickers and the SnootLickers to find three inches of common ground and proceed on a pilot program to try something new in Chico.

  2. The majority of the City Council had better come up with humane, workable solutions. They have shamed all of us with their actions, wasted money, set Chico on the path of lawsuits, and shown how having their own agenda is more important than the communities.

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