Buena Vista Park

People gather at Buena Vista Park in Santa Maria on Friday.

The Santa Maria City Council has taken the first step towards adopting new regulations for conduct at public parks, plazas and facilities, with council members discussing how discretion and enforceability would be used for minor violations. 

The proposed ordinance would add a new section to the city municipal code outlining 16 restrictions at public facilities in order to remain consistent with conduct guidelines already in place for public transit, city officials said. 

In a 4-1 vote, with councilwoman Gloria Soto dissenting, the council approved a first reading of the ordinance, with a second reading and final vote to take place at the next city council meeting on June 2. 

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Certain sections will rely on a complaint-based system and give heavy discretion to law enforcement to judge the severity of the situation, such as standards for offensive body odor and limitations for playing music from a speaker, City Attorney Thomas Watson said. 

"A lot of it is discretion based, according to the context of the scenario," Watson said.

As far as playing music in public spaces, Watson said the restriction is included not to target families playing music from a small speaker at the park, for example, but individuals blasting music and bothering other residents as a result. 

When asked by Councilwoman Gloria Soto why such restrictions couldn't be made more specific in the ordinance to address different contexts, Watson said they could not be made more specific but that it was important to have at least a framework in place to allow the city to respond if necessary.

He added that officers will try to establish compliance with individuals before taking any punitive actions for minor violations.

According to the ordinance, punitive actions can include a written citation and ejection from the public space for the remainder of the day, and exclusion for a longer period of time if infractions continue. 

Serious violations that present threats, danger or serious disruption will also result in long-term exclusion from the public space, with criminal behavior similarly not tolerated, according to the ordinance.

During the public comment period, city resident Gale McNeeley urged council members to reconsider the ordinance, particularly a section restricting the use of city-owned restrooms for bathing and cleaning purposes.

McNeeley stated that those experiencing homelessness will be hurt by these restrictions, as other public facilities with restrooms, such as libraries and gyms, have been closed during the pandemic and are therefore not available for use. 

"Please, look at this sensibly. Please change this order so it does not criminalize the homeless," McNeeley said. 

Watson said the ordinance is not intended to criminalize the homeless, but to balance individual needs with community needs. 

According to Alex Posada, director of the Recreation and Parks Department, the ordinance is meant to provide guidelines for more disruptive behaviors beyond just those that qualify as breaking the law. 

"We're really looking at trying to create an environment where everybody can use our public facilities and enjoy them. The main focus of the ordinance is to set those parameters and so that we can educate individuals about how they should conduct themselves on public facilities," Posada said. 

He added that with similar ordinances, such as restricting smoking in public parks, the city has allowed for a 30-day education period for the public prior to any enforcement. 

Laura Place covers city government for the Santa Maria Times.