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SANTA MONICA / CITY COUNCIL ROUNDUP : Dogs Have Their Day; Officials Have a Change of Heart on Panhandling


Dogs in Santa Monica won the right to romp in city parks, beggars were prohibited from panhandling near automated teller machines, and voters may soon decide a bond measure to pay for a much-needed Santa Monica police and fire station.

Decisions on the three disparate but significant matters were reached--in all cases unanimously--at an action-packed Santa Monica City Council meeting Tuesday night.

The public hearings drew dozens of dog lovers, but less than a handful of speakers on the panhandling issue. The police bond measure, arguably the most important of the three, was considered after 11 p.m., following testimony from fewer than a dozen speakers.

Going to the Dogs

City Council members clearly enjoyed delving into the dogs-in-the-park issue--perhaps in part because there are 4,000 registered dogs in the city, many of whose owners cast ballots.

Canines were banned from city parks for 50 years until a dog owners group called Santa Monica Dog organized a two-year effort to gain park access for their pets. The vote Tuesday was, among other things, to make permanent a six-month trial period that has allowed dogs in city parks, provided they are kept on a leash.

The law also creates permanent off-leash dog areas in Joslyn and Marine parks, both of which are in the southern portion of Santa Monica. Dog owners extolled the virtues of the two off-leash parks, crediting them with everything from fostering community spirit to ridding the area of prostitutes.

Resident Howard Israel, who described himself as unsociable, said he was astonished to see how many at the hearing were friends he had made while walking his pooch.

The council also set a minimum fine of $50 for those caught without a scooper, plastic bags or other means of removing dog droppings. Failure to control your dog could bring a stiffer $100 fine.

Under the new law, hours at the off-leash areas are 7:30 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 8:30 p.m. weekdays. On weekends the hours are 8:30 to 11 a.m. and 5 to 8:30 p.m.

To the relief of seven homeowners whose back yards abut the Marine Park dog run, the city is going to move the off-leash area to another part of that park.

Complaining neighbors of the Joslyn Park run did not get relief, however. Linda Wilson said she had achieved her fantasy of owning a home adjacent to the park--where, she said, she used to live contentedly.

"And then the dogs came," Wilson said, "dozens of them barking early in the morning and late at night."

Dog owners, however, noted that parks are filled with noise from tennis and basketball courts, as well as from children playing. "You wouldn't close parks to children just because they make noise," said Callie Warfield, who said she considers her two dogs her children.

Panhandling at ATMs

Historically, any effort to place restrictions on homeless residents has met with stiff opposition. Yet there was hardly a murmur Tuesday night when the council unanimously passed a law banning solicitation, which includes panhandling, within 80 feet of automated teller machines, in outdoor dining areas and on buses.

It will also be illegal to ask people for spare change while they are driving or while they are in city parking structures.

The panhandling issue has been aired many times before, but it has been considered one of the trickiest matters to deal with because panhandling is a form of legally protected free speech. Also, many in the city believe further difficulties should not be imposed on the homeless.

However, City Atty. Marsha Jones Moutrie, who had previously expressed reservations about the legality of the restrictions, said an argument could be made for them in court. The rules must apply equally to all, which means, for example, that Girl Scouts won't be able to sell cookies near an ATM.

The stated reasons for the restrictions are public safety, preventing traffic tie-ups and respecting the privacy of restaurant patrons and those who use public transportation.

Retro Policing

Jack Webb would have felt at home in Santa Monica police headquarters, but pretty much everyone agrees that the station has gone from past-its-prime to dangerously inadequate.

Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts said he warned the city when he was hired almost three years ago that the facilities were antiquated and might not withstand a major emergency.

Butts was proved right on Jan. 17, when the city's 911 system failed for six or seven hours after the Northridge earthquake. There was no backup system because the station lacks the technical capacity to maintain one.

Firetrucks had to roam the city looking for fires to put out, and police operated with one walkie-talkie out of a camper seized in a drug raid. Fortunately, no calamities resulted from the communications blackout.

The police station, built in the 1950s for 166 employees, is occupied by a 466-member force, Butts told the council. The jail, the second oldest in the state, lacks security features, making escape attempts a threat.

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