After more than three hours of intense debate within the Common Council chambers, the Madison City Council voted 11-7 to eliminate the sunset provision on a controversial ordinance involving loitering and drug activity. The sunset provision required the ordinance to be renewed yearly by the council.
Faced with the issue titled “Loitering for Purposes of Illegal Drug Activity,” community activists spoke out against the ordinance with no successful result.
What many believe to be a racist “tool” that profiles citizens of color, particularly African-American males, members of several community organizations showed their opposition toward the ordinance.
However, Ald. Santiago Rosas, District 17, the lone minority member of the council, voted to terminate the sunset — a provision that would continue debate on the issue — because he feels it will help to solve problems of drug trafficking and violence in the city.
“[The city council] has the tendency to talk about racial profiling and racist laws,” Rosas said. “But one of the things that really disturbed me is that I have not seen anyone of my colleagues go out [in] our troubled or minority neighborhoods, as they call it, to at least find out how the people in the trenches are dealing with the drug activity.”
Jarrell, who voted to keep the sunset provision, argued that continuing with the sunset provision would allow the issue’s permanence to be resolved at a later date, Ald. Todd Jarrell, District 8, said he believed the continued discussion of the loitering ordinance will help the council understand the deeper social issues in the city.
“I think we use the loitering ordinance as an excuse,” Jarrell said. “We need to talk about the deeper issues. I think if we keep the sunset it will help us to find out what we need to do to fix the problems.”
Police Chief Richard Williams was questioned for over an hour by the council on the success of the ordinance and the motives behind it. In response, he answered with anecdotes on the reduction of the crime rates in targeted neighborhoods but offered no official statistics.
Rosas showed his support for the police department and all its efforts to combat crime in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.
“I think that the police department are doing the best as they can with whatever they have,” Rosas said. “This is not a fool-proof measure, but it is a tool that we are working with. The police have also made it public that they will be providing us with reports on the progress and we can tweak it as we go along.”
Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said he voted to continue with the sunset because of his belief that the ordinance may even be unconstitutional.
“The statistics show that, at a minimum, since the ordinance has been around, 80 percent of those arrested violating the ordinance were African American,” Verveer said. “I find it ironic at tonight’s same City council agenda we had an update as to the good work that our Race Relations Task Force is doing, and then later on in the meeting we give our stamp of approval to an ordinance that is clearly racist.”
While the ordinance is now on the books as an official law, it is not etched in stone and could be overturned by the council in the future.
Earlier in the agenda, the council addressed whether landlords will have to give written reason as to why a potential tenant’s application was turned down. The council voted to move further discussion and a vote on the issue to the March 5 meeting.