Park commissioners pass changes to outdated ordinances

The Park Board is preparing to pass several revisions to its ordinances involving spitting, bathrooms and prohibited conduct in the city’s park system.

The board’s Administration & Finance Committee unanimously voted April 18 to approve a repeal and two revisions to what park legal counsel describe as outdated or constitutionally overbroad laws that park police rarely enforce. The full board is expected to vote on the changes in May.

Commissioners plan to repeal PB2-14, which criminalizes spitting in any boat, canoe, building or walk-in in any park or parkway. Chief Jason Ohotto said in a report to the board in March that park police haven’t cited anyone under the law in at least three years.

They plan to revise PB2-13, an ordinance that is meant to criminalize drug use, vandalism and sleeping in the hundreds of bathrooms in the city’s park system, by taking out vague words like “lurk,” “loiter” or “lie in wait.” Park police have only issued four citations for lurking in bathrooms in the past three years.

The new ordinance would read: “No person shall, in restroom facility, sleep, remain for any period of time beyond that required to use the facility, or enter for the purpose to engage in any criminal act.”

The board’s prohibited conduct and language ordinance, PB2-16, would get the largest edit under the revisions. Nearing 100 words, the current version of the law contains several outdated words and what the board’s legal counsel described as constitutionally protected speech. Commissioners plan to take out the first clause that prohibits “threatening, profane, abusive, disorderly, insulting or indecent language, conduct or behavior.”

The new ordinance would read: “No person shall in or upon any park, parkway, beach, playground, park facility, or park waters use language that by its very utterance inflicts injury nor use language or engage in conduct that tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace; nor shall any person gamble, or intentionally engage in any indecent, lascivious, lewd or demonstratively offensive conduct.”

In his report, Ohotto described the ordinance as an umbrella law for disorderly conduct. Park police have issued 54 citations under the ordinance in the past three years.

Citywide Commissioner Londel French has said that revising these laws is part of a larger mission of improving relations between the Park Board and communities of color.

He brought up a recent incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks in which two young black men were arrested and removed from the café for suspicion of trespassing. The April 16 incident sparked conversations nationwide about how the country’s anti-loitering laws have historically been used to discriminate against people of color.

“This is one of the reasons why (these changes are) good. It’s a social justice issue,” he said.

The board may open up the revisions to community input, according to a staff report. The changes will require two readings at the full board and a public hearing prior to the board’s final vote.