Kalispell City Council weighs new rules for public parks prompted by homeless presence

Jan. 25—It was standing-room only at a four-hour Kalispell City Council work session Monday evening as the body debated ordinances that would place limits on access to public parks facilities.

Council Chambers overflowed with residents, sending many into the hallways to livestream the proceedings online. The council weighed the draft ordinances, based on rules previously adopted by Whitefish, in response to months of public complaints about the presence of homeless people and illegal behavior in the gazebo located in downtown Kalispell's Depot Park.

Last week, city officials decided to indefinitely close the gazebo and a pavilion at Woodland Park to the public while they prepared ordinances that, if approved, would place limits on personal property, structures and cumulative time spent in parks facilities.

Residents' complaints have centered around public intoxication, drug use, littering, urination and defecation in the city's parks, with many submitting letters saying that they feel uncomfortable bringing their families there or using the public facilities.

In his opening remarks, City Manager Doug Russell sought to preempt the public's comments to parks-related matters, labeling previous Daily Inter Lake coverage of the gazebo closure as "diversionary efforts" and blaming the media for shifting the community's focus onto the city's growing homeless population.

Russell highlighted the city's efforts to address larger issues surrounding homelessness, pointing to the city's co-responder program, which pairs police officers with mental health providers, and a recent report by City-County Health Officer Jennifer Rankosky in which she identified the need for a mental health stabilization center.

The co-responder program partners police with mental health professionals during certain interactions with homeless people. In a recent interview, Police Chief Doug Overman praised the program, but said that it requires additional full-time staff to fully reach its potential.

Although Russell's memo to Council on the proposed ordinances omitted mention of the homeless population directly, it makes reference to a "group ... taking control of our public spaces."

In his statement Monday night, Russell echoed the same language, calling the homeless who have been seen in the gazebo an "organization" and a "small subset of the community."

Russell acknowledged that the behaviors in the parks leading to the gazebo's shuttering already violate municipal code, but argued that the proposed ordinances would "prevent the need for law enforcement" and "preempt illegal activity."

As part of his presentation, Russell shared images of personal belongings, trash, and human excrement in the gazebo, as provided by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, whose office is across the park.

Councilor Jessica Dahlman raised questions about how these ordinances would be enforced, asking staff if it would require a police officer or park warden to monitor the areas for compliance.

Russell said that it would be handled on a "complaint basis." He said he thought police would use the ordinances as tools to move people along, with officers educating alleged violators and avoiding citations.

Councilor Ryan Hunter said that he found the criminal activity disturbing, but pointed to existing laws that can be enforced, even going as far as to say that the municipal code allows for someone convicted of an offense in a park to be banned from the area for 180 days.

"Just being [in the park] with possessions is not illegal," Hunter said, saying that he saw an ordinance banning excessive personal belongings as subjective and "ripe for inherent selective enforcement."

"Policing can only be as good as the laws being enforced," Hunter said.

Others on the council spoke in favor of the ordinances. Councilor Sam Nunnally said he thought the ordinances would prove beneficial, but argued that pressure had to be applied to the state Legislature to increase funding for mental health and drug addiction resources.

MEMBERS OF the public offered impassioned comments both supporting and opposing the ordinances.

Business owner Eric Baim said he'd support the ordinance, if it was accompanied by larger solutions to address homelessness. For local business owners, the problem has worsened since closing the gazebo, he said.

Tucker Landerman, who owns TL Slicks Barber Shop, a downtown business near Depot Park, said what he's witnessed in the park over the last few years has been "beyond anything I can imagine." He cited firsthand accounts of drug use and sales.

"My patience has worn down to nothing," Landerman said.

"I think we can all agree that the behaviors we're seeing in Depot Park are not acceptable," said Tonya Horn, director of the Flathead Warming Center.

Horn used her time to explain the psychological and chemical dependency roots of the problem from her decade of experience in the mental health field and her perspective as someone who works with homeless people every day.

"A fence does not solve the root of the problem," Horn said.

Residents who have escaped homelessness spoke about their experiences, as well.

Jaycee Simpson talked about her mental health, drug abuse history, and history of homelessness. She felt much of the conversation painted the homeless community with a broad brush as addicts who don't want help or criminals with bad intentions.

"You guys are sitting here and talking about doing ordinances and making it easier for the cops to just move people along," Simpson said. "It's going to create more work for our police who are already stretched thin enough."

After several hours of public comment Mayor Mark Johnson indicated that the issue will come before council at their next meeting on Feb. 6.

In an interview after the session Johnson described the community's input as "incredible."

"It's one of the first times we've seen this much interest," Johnson said, saying that the turnout and comments were evidence that the people of Kalispell care about finding a solution.

Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at aknowler@dailyinterlake.com.