By Doug Hallett
One year after the start of the Occupy protests, which began on New York’s Wall Street and spread to Guelph and elsewhere, city hall is proposing a public nuisance bylaw that the local Occupy protest would have violated if the bylaw had been in effect.
As well, the proposed bylaw would extend to gatherings on private property. It would allow the city to recover enforcement costs incurred while dealing with nuisance parties, by billing either the host or the owner of property in which a bothersome party is held.
Because of the controversial nature of the proposed bylaw, at this point city staff are seeking only council’s approval in principle for creation of a public nuisance bylaw.
The bylaw’s final wording would be crafted after people have a chance to “voice their concerns and make their opinions known,” says Doug Godfrey, the city’s manager of bylaw compliance and security.
“Public input would be key” in determining the final form of the bylaw, Godfrey said in an interview Friday. “I want to stress that this is only a draft for council’s consideration, just to show everybody what it could look like,” he said.
A new city staff report says Guelph is recognized across Canada as a safe community. But, it says, “inconsistent with this attribute, the city has experienced a number of incidents and undesirable gatherings, both on public and private lands, over the past few years that demonstrated staff do not have sufficient tools at their disposal to act in an effective and timely manner to protect the interests of the city.” Asked whether last fall’s local Occupy encampment and the occupation of a construction site in the new Hanlon Creek Business Park by protesters in the summer of 2009 were example of such undesirable gatherings, Godfrey replied, “I don’t want to just pinpoint those.”
However, he agreed both of these protests would have violated the proposed public nuisance bylaw, if it had been in effect.
Last fall, Occupy Guelph protesters spent nearly three weeks camped out in St. George’s Square before moving their protest to Royal City Park and setting up tents there.
Staff from various departments at city hall, as well as the Guelph Police Service, collaborated to develop the draft public nuisance bylaw, says the new staff report written by Godfrey.
The bylaw would allow city bylaw staff and the Guelph Police Service to “address unwanted activity through actions associated with bylaw compliance, instead of through the issuance of criminal charges,” the report says.
“The use of bylaw control generally results in undesirable behaviour being corrected in a timelier, less onerous and more cost-efficient manner for all parties involved.”
Significantly, the bylaw would give staff the tools to deal better with three areas, one of which is “nuisance parties occurring on private land that if unaddressed may escalate and affect public safety,” the report says.
The draft bylaw would allow enforcement officials to “disperse parties as well as close roadways to restrict the party from increasing.” It also establishes the authority of the city to “recover costs incurred while addressing nuisance parties” – from the host or from the property owner.
A second highly significant area targeted by the bylaw is “protests and rallies that extend beyond 24 consecutive hours” – unless a permit is obtained from the city.
A third significant area takes aim at “camping, dwelling or construction of temporary structures” on city property unless the city has granted a permit.
Some of the provisions of Guelph’s proposed public nuisance bylaw are contained in various bylaws in other cities, such as London and Oshawa, Godfrey said. He said city hall has brought various elements together in the new draft bylaw.
While some other Ontario cities have provisions allowing “administrative monetary penalties,” he said, he wasn’t aware of any of them using such provisions to recover the costs of dealing with nuisance parties.
Godfrey said some other cities restrict how long people can occupy public land, although he didn’t know of any others with the “specific wording” found in Guelph’s draft bylaw. “Some put restrictions of the number of persons as well. We haven’t done that,” he added.
Some other Ontario cities use park bylaws to control camping in parks, while “other municipalities may have loitering bylaws,” which Guelph doesn’t have, he said.
There have been protests in Guelph in the past where organizers contacted city hall in advance to talk about “public safety issues, and it worked well,” Godfrey said.
“I don’t want to say protests and rallies cannot occur,” he said. “We just want to work with organizers to ensure the safety of everyone involved.”
Charter of Rights
Asked if there are concerns at city hall that the proposed bylaw could breach Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Godfrey said: “The intent is not to infringe on anyone’s human rights. We are looking at the safety side.”
The draft bylaw includes a clause saying it’s intended that a successful court challenge to any of the bylaw’s sections shouldn’t affect other parts of the bylaw.
Council’s operations, transit and emergency services committee approved the idea of the proposed bylaw on Monday and instructed staff to seek public input.