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Mayor Kirk Caldwell uses public safety to justify obstruction bills

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Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell scolded Honolulu City Council members Saturday for shelving two bills that he said would get more homeless people off city sidewalks. Makeshift shelters popped up in and around Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako in mid-July.

Using a row of lean-tos on River Street in Chinatown as a backdrop, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell scolded two Honolulu City Council members Saturday for shelving two bills he said would get more homeless people off city sidewalks.

Caldwell said he introduced Bills 51 and 52 to give the city additional tools to keep pedestrians safe and get more homeless into shelters, and because Oahu’s residents have “demanded action.”

Bill 51 would make it illegal to obstruct a public sidewalk or interfere with the “free and unobstructed passage of pedestrians,” while Bill 52 would ban sleeping on a sidewalk.

The bills were deferred by the Council’s Public Works, Infrastructure and Sustainability Committee last week after passing first reading, because administration officials were unable to provide information requested by Council members.

Caldwell said the bills would cover the entire island, unlike the city’s “sit-lie” laws that ban sitting or lying on sidewalks in specific business areas because those actions impede commercial activity. The administration has opposed islandwide sidewalk bans in the past over concerns they were too broad and would fail a constitutional challenge.

At his news conference Saturday, the mayor said Bill 51 would pass such a challenge because sidewalk obstructions create a public safety hazard by forcing pedestrians to walk in the street.

“(The sidewalk) is for people walking, clear and simple,” he said. “I don’t see where there’s going to be a valid constitutional challenge.”

In regard to Bill 52, four conditions would have to be in effect before police could issue a citation or make an arrest: shelter space must be available for the offender, transportation to the shelter must be offered, an officer must issue a written request for the person to move, and the person must be given an hour to vacate.

He said residents from Chinatown and Waikiki — areas represented, respectively, by Council members Carol Fukunaga, chairwoman of the Public Works Committee, and Trevor Ozawa, who requested the deferral — have demanded more be done to make sidewalks safer.

“These two members represent those areas but they’re ignoring the demands of their constituents that we do something,” Caldwell said. “Therefore, we’re asking that they get off their butts, move the bill forward, (and) make them better, working with the community.”

Ozawa shot back Saturday that the mayor’s office was not presenting a clear plan and vision for addressing the problem, and he accused the Caldwell administration of doing a “flip-flop” on the issue of banning the homeless from sidewalks.

He told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser he is concerned the two bills would open up the city to costly lawsuits. When questioned about potential legal challenges during last week’s Council meeting, the city’s Corporation Counsel wanted to discuss the matter in a closed-door executive session, according to Ozawa, who wants a public discussion for transparency.

A legal fight could also jeopardize existing sit-lie laws, he said.

He challenged Caldwell to attend the committee’s next meeting Aug. 29 to explain the legal basis for the bills himself.

Fukunaga said it’s “pretty common” for Council members to defer proposed measures when city agencies are unable to provide requested information. In this case, they failed to explain how the two bills would survive scrutiny on constitutional grounds.

“We want to make sure the bills are legally defensible,” she said.

Fukunaga said residents also are concerned about spending money to just move the homeless from one place to another.

“It’s got to be a comprehensive effort” with all agencies and partners working together, she said.

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