Abortion, prostitution and driveways dominate council meeting

click to enlarge People turned out to city council Monday night. - JAKE THOMAS
Jake Thomas
People turned out to city council Monday night.

For the third time in a row Spokane City Council had a long hearing about emotional subjects. People packed council chambers on Monday night overflowing into an adjacent gallery to talk about council ordinances related to prostitution and abortion.

Except the second issue wasn't really about abortion; it was about not blocking driveways, according to Council President Ben Stuckart. At least that's what he attempted to make the meeting about, with limited success.

On the agenda was an ordinance that would make it illegal to block a driveway in the public right-of-way. The ordinance was specifically crafted to stop protesters who regularly gather at the Planned Parenthood on East Indiana Avenue from blocking the driveway.

Stuckart wanted to talk about driveways, but most of the 80 people who signed up to speak during the public comment period had other plans.

The first person to speak began talking about his pro-life views, but Stuckart cut him off, saying “we are not going to have a full-blown abortion-good-or-bad debate.” The man countered that abortion was on the council's website, but Stuckart told him it was not.

At a few points during the hearing, Stuckart, who said he was trying not to be “grumpy,” warned the audience not to clap or cheer for speakers, which had led to Stuckart gaveling the meeting early at the last meeting.

Little of what was said during the public comment period was about driveways. Several women told stories about their past abortions and how they were still haunted by them. Others complained that the ordinance was abridging free speech and would invite a lawsuit. One man spoke of “premeditated infanticide.” Still, others spoke of the importance of being able to access reproductive services. One volunteer at Planned Parenthood said that protesters dress up like staff to trick clients, many of whom are distraught by the time they enter the clinic.

During one woman's emotional description of her abortion, Stuckart interrupted her and tried to refocus the conversation.

“I do want to keep this to driveways,” he said, referring to the text of the ordinance that added nine words to an existing city law originally intended to stop aggressive panhandling. “We keep veering off.”

“We need to stay here with those words,” he said.

But Councilman Mike Fagan objected. He said that a council white paper related to the ordinance made it clear that the ordinance was aimed at the situation at Planned Parenthood.

“This ordinance is directed to a specific group,” said Fagan.

That specific group is Sidewalk Advocates for Life. John Weingarten, the director of the group's local chapter, told the council that all his group does is smile, wave and make a roll-down-the-window motion to people driving into Planned Parenthood. If the people stop, he said, an advocate will hand them literature on other options, about half of which he said are grateful to have received.

“We have not blocked the driveway or interfered with traffic,” Weingarten told the council, adding that no one from his group has been arrested despite frequent visits from the police during protests.

After about three hours of public testimony it was time for council members to consider and vote on the ordinance.

Fagan brought up how one person during the public comment period spoke admiringly of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. He then compared Sanger to Nazis and eugenicists.

“Please do your history,” he said.

He also said that the ordinance was clearly meant to undermine the free speech rights of protesters at Planned Parenthood.

Taking a confessional tone, Fagan said that he had “been there, done that” with abortion and described it as a scarring experience for both the man and woman involved.

“Here I am some 38 years later, and I'm still wondering about the 'what if,'” he said.

Councilman Mike Allen, the council's other conservative member, said that he crafted the original city law that the new ordinance was amending. While he said he understood why protesters felt targeted, he ended up supporting the ordinance, which passed 6-1.

City Council also passed an ordinance meant to crack down on prostitution along an area on East Sprague Avenue that statistics show attracts an outsized number of calls to the police related to prostitution. The ordinance, which is designed to reduce the demand for prostitution, creates a special zone around the stretch on East Sprague where anyone suspected of soliciting or promoting prostitution would have their vehicle impounded. Half of the money generated from fines from the ordinance would go to programs meant to prevent prostitution.

During public comment, the council heard from business owners and residents who said that the ordinance would help clean up the area. One woman said she was solicited about a dozen times while waiting for the bus in the area and said she didn't feel safe. Other people told council that they worried that the “world's oldest profession” would just be driven elsewhere by the ordinance and there was no way to truly address the issue.

“However, the truth is we don't really know what kind of impact this will have on people working in prostitution,” said Lutheran Community Services Northwest Advocacy and Prevention Director Erin Williams Heuter.

“We have no way of knowing if this ordinance will drive prostitution into more secluded meetings and how this will increase vulnerability in this population,” she said, adding that she hoped city council would keep an eye on the issue.