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City at odds over proposed updates to public good order

March 8, 2018

Frustrated. Shocked. Disappointed.

Cups, bottles and cans often litter the streets of Eau Claire’s Randall Park neighborhood. The Randall Park neighborhood surrounds Historic Randall Park and comprises the housing just north of Water Street. ©2018 Samantha West

These are a few of the words members of the Eau Claire community use to describe how they feel about the wide public discussion regarding the city’s recent update to the public good order ordinance that aims to combat Eau Claire’s notorious “drinking problem.”

The city — comprised of folks young and old, college students, the elderly, young adults just out of college starting careers and families — is at odds for a variety of reasons. While some students feel they had no voice or warning before the creation of a stricter policy that may hurt their safety, some neighbors feel students are neglecting to take responsibility for their own actions and be good neighbors.

Following a roundtable discussion at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire on March 1, when students had the opportunity to ask city, university and law enforcement officials questions and express concerns about the ordinance, Matthew Morgan couldn’t find the words to express how he was feeling.

“I feel even more frustrated,” Morgan, the senior at UW-Eau Claire said after a long pause and a slow shake of his head.

Morgan isn’t the only one. As the ordinance has gained community interest, the president of the Randall Park Neighborhood Association, Lauren Lierman, has seen students posting all over social media, targeting the neighborhood association and residents because of the ordinance that they had no part in creating. Posts have told them that students “just want to have a good time” and “they don’t care about anybody else” and if anyone doesn’t like it, they should just move out of the neighborhood.

“I was fairly shocked at how negative the reaction was,” Lierman said. “It was very disappointing. To see people (college students) who are really in a position to make their mark on the world in a positive way, it was really disappointing.”

How is the ordinance being updated?

The proposal is a newly-amended update to the city’s public good order ordinance that was first established in 1953. Aiming to better Eau Claire’s “drinking problem,” city officials say Eau Claire police would have the authority to issue citations to anyone disturbing others, being publicly intoxicated outside or inside businesses, loitering in public or private places, along with other policies regarding accumulating bottles or cans on private properties for more than 24 hours.

In addition, the ordinance would create a policy limiting how many people can be dropped off on a city block in the Third Ward and Randall Park neighborhoods to no more than 10 people at once.

“Eau Claire has a drinking problem,” said Eau Claire assistant city attorney Jenessa Stromberger in her explanation of the proposed ordinance at the university roundtable. “That’s the long and short of it.”

Stromberger referenced statistics from UW Health last year that ranked Eau Claire County as second worst in the state for binge drinking. The study found that 27 percent of adults in Eau Claire County reported binge drinking in the last year. The state average sits at 24 percent, and the national average sits at 17 percent.

Students’ concerns

Though many students wouldn’t deny a citywide problem with binge drinking, they feel the changes target college students disproportionately and try to control them in ways city government shouldn’t.

Students’ biggest concern, however, is how the ordinance would limit late-night bussing so that no more than 10 people can be dropped off within the same city block. Some say the impact that would have on the city’s Right Way Shuttle would only cause elevated safety concerns.

First year student Alyssa Thorne said she attended the roundtable discussion, which hosted a crowd of about 150 other students, “to see how serious it was” because the policies introduced seemed “a little ridiculous.” Particularly, Thorne was interested in the regulation of the Right Way Shuttle’s Late-Night Safe Ride service.

Thorne said students will likely leave their dorms on upper campus to go to Water Street and the Randall Park and Third Ward neighborhoods to drink regardless of the policy.

“The bus is a way that keeps them safe,” she said.

After the roundtable discussion, Tom Klatt, owner of the Right Way Shuttle Service, ended his Late-Night Safe Ride service, effective immediately.

Thorne said she feels the city isn’t aiming to promote public safety, but just trying to find ways to issue more citations to students for more money.

“At other schools it seems like the police are worried about keeping kids safe and caring about their well-being,” Thorne said. “Here, they’re really just caring about themselves.”

“All these fines are so expensive,” added Dorothy Stevens, another first year student referring to the $295 fines included in violating aspects of the proposed ordinance, “and it just seems a little ridiculous because it’s a college campus and it shouldn’t be like this strict, you know? It just shouldn’t be.”

Though Morgan is also concerned about changes to late-night ride services that may ultimately harm students, he said what concerns him more is the ambiguous wording and conditions for the policies.

Morgan said this concerns him due to the issue of racial profiling. As of 2017, research shows that black people are more than eight times more likely to be stopped by police than white people.

“There’s specific wording in the ordinance that’s subjective of how it could be implemented by police officers that are trying to enforce it,” Morgan said. “This gives a reason to stop anyone, citing the ordinance as why they’re being stopped even though that might not actually be why anyone is being stopped.”

Thorne said the policy will only lead to more mutual disrespect between students and police.

“Students, if they feel like they’re being disrespected by us, it’s because students feel like they’re not being respected by the police or that they’re a priority of their safety,” she said. “It kind of goes both ways.”

Neighbors’ concerns

For residents of the Randall Park neighborhood, the ordinance addresses issues that have elevated in the last few years with the overconsumption of alcohol, Lierman said. Although the association had no part in authoring the ordinance, it addresses issues the neighborhood had long faced and showed the city was paying attention.

“It’s not a nice way to act,” Lierman said of rude student responses to the issue. “That’s not how we treat our neighbors.”

Although she’s only lived in the neighborhood for two years, Lierman said she knows folks who have lived there almost their entire lives who are woken up in the middle of the night to intoxicated people banging on their door, yelling in the streets and breaking glass for them to clean up in the morning.

As far as how the ordinance affects the Right Way Shuttle’s services, Lierman said it’s not about that. Rather, it’s about people learning to take responsibility for their actions.

At the roundtable, Dean of Students Joe Abhold pointed out that “neighbors” in Randall Park and the Third Ward are older citizens with families and full-time jobs, but they are also students. He said he seems to get more complaints from students about neighborhood conditions than from non-university residents.

“That’s the kind of thing I hear about,” Abhold said. “That’s the kind of thing that the environment can create.”

Looking ahead

Although the neighborhood association supports the bill, Lierman said she’s asked city council members to wait to approve the bill so all voices can be heard on the matter.

“I think that there’s room for compromise for this,” Lierman said. “… But at the same time, it shouldn’t get to the point where that service is so desperately needed. … Don’t let yourself get to that point to where … you can’t get home. That is a danger in and of itself.”

Regardless of the result of city council’s vote on March 13, Katy McGarry, UW-Eau Claire student body president, said the conversations the proposed ordinance has spurred makes her excited.

“What I’m really hopeful for is that students have more voice in processes in the city,” McGarry said. “I think they realize that, you know, student voice is a large one in our community. And the concern is not only one dimensional — there are multifaceted concerns over this ordinance.”

Eau Claire City Council will host a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday, March 12, and will vote on the matter at their Tuesday, March 13 legislative session starting at 4 p.m.

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