By Doug Hallett
City hall has partially retreated from controversial measures in a proposed public nuisance bylaw that were attacked as infringements on civil liberties.
City staff’s new version of the bylaw includes big changes in sections that were seen by many people as “an affront to the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” says a staff report.
Staff have removed sections regulating protests and rallies, and they have also removed sections regulating the distribution of handbills. The original version of the bylaw would have outlawed hosting or participating in a public rally or protest lasting more than 24 consecutive hours, unless a permit is obtained from city hall.
However, staff are recommending that contentious clauses about obstructing sidewalks and about unauthorized camping be kept in the public nuisance bylaw. “Staff believe the erection of tents and other structures has safety implications to other citizens, especially in park areas where tents have been known to be taken by wind and may cause injury to other park users,” says the new staff report, which was made public Thursday and goes to a city council committee on March 18.
The report summarizes criticism of the original version of the bylaw, including this comment about prohibiting obstruction of sidewalks: “Large groups of people should be allowed to congregate in the sidewalk or pathway without fear of penalty. Strikes should be allowed to form picket lines.”
Staff responded by saying this section is aimed at people who “intentionally obstruct pedestrian and vehicular traffic.”
The report adds that “discretion would be used” in enforcing this section in cases where people who are protesting or striking “are intermittently interfering with the passage of pedestrians or vehicles to voice their opinion.”
The new version of the public nuisance bylaw retains wording that could see violations of the bylaw result in a fine as high as $10,000 for a person’s first conviction.
However, it also lists proposed set fines of $300, $500 or $750 for on-the-spot tickets for 35 different violations of the bylaw.
Knocking over a Canada Post mailbox, newspaper box or waste bin on city property, obstructing a sidewalk and unauthorized camping on city land would bring $300 tickets.
Among the 13 offences carrying a $500 fine is participating in a fight on city land.
The biggest set fine of $750 is reserved for just one offence – namely, “sponsoring, conducting, continuing, hosting, creating, attending, allowing or causing a nuisance party.”
When it comes to giving police and city bylaw officers a lot more power over so-called “nuisance parties,” the new version of the bylaw makes hardly any changes from the original version.
It was suggested during public consultations late last year that the city’s noise bylaw to allows the city compel people creating excessive noise to cease and desist, the report says.
But, it says, the noise bylaw “does not provide authority for police/bylaw staff to stop parties. The nuisance bylaw as recommended will provide such authority.”
The new version of the bylaw continues to allow the city to impose a fee to recover some of the costs of dealing with a nuisance party, such as the cost of closing roads to prevent further access to the party. The fee could be imposed on the host of the party or on the owner of the property where it’s held.
“An owner who did not condone the nuisance party would not be billed for the costs,” the report says. However, “when an owner is responsible, the city believes that particular owner, not the taxpayers at large, should have to pay.”
The city says more than 130 people provided comments and feedback on the first version of the public nuisance bylaw late last year through a Saturday morning town hall meeting at city hall, a “telephone town hall,” by phone, by email and by fax. A working group within city hall then reviewed the public feedback on each of the bylaw’s many clauses.
The bylaw would give police and the city’s bylaw enforcement officers “an additional tool to address minor, unwanted behaviour or activities on city-owned property, and, in certain limited cases, private land,” the new staff report says.
“This tool will permit enforcing officials to deal with unwanted behaviour . . . through the nuisance bylaw rather than through the laying of criminal charges.”
This will reduce the resources that Guelph Police and the courts need to devote to such behaviour, allowing them to “concentrate on more serious matters,” it says.
Without a new bylaw, “most nuisance behaviour would continue to be exclusively addressed by the Guelph Police Service,” the report says. It says the nuisance bylaw “will enhance the city’s ability to respond to such activity.”
When it comes to “youthful exuberance and/or minor infractions,” the report says, “the application of Criminal Code charges may be seen as too heavy-handed. For minor nuisance infractions, the nuisance bylaw can bridge the gap between the issuance of Criminal Code charges and simple warnings.”
The proposed public nuisance bylaw “does indeed prohibit many undesirable activities,” but it “allows for a number of the activities to occur through the issuance of administrative exemptions or permits when it is in the public interest for the activity to occur,” the report says.
Staff believe the proposed bylaw “balances the need to control such activity with the public expectation to limit governmental control over civil liberties,” it says.