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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 4:34 pm | Fair 62º


Santa Maria Council Shelves Proposed Library Rule Restricting Belongings

A proposed rule to limit the size of items people can take into the Santa Maria Public Library unfairly targeted the homeless population, several speakers told the City Council on Tuesday night.

The City Council postponed the proposed rule about restricting belongings but adopted a law that allows the librarian to ban problematic patrons from the library after committing a major offense the first time. Rules currently require two warnings with the person banned after the third incident.

Several people spoke out against restricting belongings as the City Council was poised to approve the second reading of the ordinance implementing the new rules. No one spoke when the council introduced the ordinance Aug 5.

Library staff had proposed requiring that customers’ personal items be able to fit under a chair and prohibit “large personal items that cannot fit under a chair.”

Santa Maria resident Helen Galvan called the proposal “veiled discrimination against our homeless population.”

“The library is an oasis of knowledge, of ideas, of opportunity,” Galvan said. “In the event one of these homeless individuals, carrying a large tote, would like to take advantage of everything our library has to offer, this ordinance would deny them that opportunity.”

Former librarian Jack Buchanan said officials didn’t plan for this kind of contingency when the library was being built.

If library officials had planned for this issue when the new facility was built, they might have included lockers like those found at bus stations, he added.

“I think there must be some way to do better for these people,” Buchanan said.

Patty Dark, a deputy public defender and “vigorous” user of the library, called the restriction “morally wrong,” unconstitutional and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It’s an invitation to a lawsuit and it serves no purpose,” she said. “It’s going to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

The facility has 400 seats, with vast expanses of unused space to safety accommodate large items. 

“This ordinance is unconstitutionally vague, it’s over broad … and it’s prohibiting lawful conduct,” she said. “How are you going to enforce it? What are personal belongings? Are you going to enforce it against the student on his way home from his guitar lesson or only against the homeless man who carries his belongings in a guitar case?

“This ordinance is mean-spirited. It doesn’t speak as to who we are in Santa Maria and invites a lawsuit.”

Jacqueline MacNeil, who serves on the library board of trustees, said this is a growing problem in the library and had been discussed by the advisory group.

“In today’s world, I have to tell you, an unattended backpack or package can be scary,” MacNeil said. “How many times have you heard about airports that were completely emptied because somebody left a backpack sitting there? You don’t like to think it can happen here, but of course it can.”

She said it shouldn’t fall upon the library to make all the accommodations for homeless residents to leave their items during the day. 

A homeschool teacher said she recently saw a big orange suitcase wide open in library, noting that her students aren’t allowed to bring large items into the facility.

Librarian Mary Housel said the intent of the rule isn’t to discriminate against any group of people but to deal with tripping hazards and other safety matters. 

“Libraries have had the goal of welcoming everyone for years and years and that’s what we stand by. That’s our passion and we want to keep doing that, but we also want to recognize that we need to have safety and comfort in the library and make it that way for everyone coming in,” Housel said. “The intent is to do what many other libraries have done. … Many libraries in the U.S. have these restrictions. It’s not unusual. It’s very common and very reasonable.”

Lompoc and Santa Barbara libraries have similar restrictions regarding personal belongings but use specific dimensions. Housel said the idea of limiting belongings to those that fit under a chair gives an estimate what size items are allowed.

She showed a plastic containers like those used by the post offices to demonstrate the approximate size of items, explaining it was 18 inches by 14 inches by 12 inches. 

“To me this is a reasonable size item we would accommodate in the library,” she said. 

Larger items seen in recent months include backpacks, gym bags and luggage. 

“Staff has concerns about shooters coming in the library. We have concerns about items being stolen,” she said. 

In San Luis Obispo County, library staff found 100 stolen DVDs in a large bag, she noted.

The rule also is protection for customers after some have reported having items stolen recently while in the library.

Councilman Jack Boysen said the proposed rule began with the best intention but may have some unintended consequences.  Boysen noted that Santa Maria doesn’t have a day center for homeless people.

“I would like to see this go back and rethought and take a look at what specifically we’re trying to exclude. If we’re specifically trying to exclude shopping carts full of possessions let’s say shopping carts full of possessions,” Boysen said.

The council voted 4-1 to postpone implementing the rules on restrictions, with Mayor Alice Patino casting the lone no vote.

The other rule, which the council adopted by a 4-1 vote Tuesday night, would allow the librarian to ban people who commit serious violations such as fighting, stalking or harassing fellow library patrons or staff.  Councilwoman Terri Zuniga voted against the law.

Currently, the staff issue a verbal warning for the first offense, then a written warning for the second offense before finally issue the ban letter.

"We need something with teeth in it to make our job easier," Housel said.

Boysen also he wanted to make sure the librarian is deciding who receives an exclusion letter so it's not left to low-level staff or volunteers.

The one-strike rule for major offenses will take effect in mid-September.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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