For more than 130 years, downtown Fresno's Courthouse Park has been the nerve center of the county's civic life, a tree-shrouded oasis filled with government buildings, statues and monuments.
But now Fresno County officials — who oversee the park — say an increasing number of vagrants and overnight campers are posing both safety and aesthetic concerns.
No more, say the county's Board of Supervisors, who last week took the first step toward park ordinance changes that they say will help keep the park clean and safe.
The changes were called minor by county officials, but they could have a major impact on both the homeless population and the Occupy Fresno movement, which still is manning a post in the park 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Among the proposed changes:
Expanding the ban on loitering — essentially being in the park — from midnight to 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Prohibiting "mobile containers" — including shopping carts — "except for the sole purpose of passage through the park."
Limiting personal possessions of those in the park to 8 cubic feet. It is a change that at least one supervisor thinks will get the county sued, but one that a board majority and the county's top law enforcement official support.
"This will give us more things to enforce to keep people moving through the park," Sheriff Margaret Mims said. "People are staying too long in one spot. Now we have something to enforce to keep people from living in the park, from setting up camps."
Mims said people have been going to the bathroom in the bushes. Of even greater concern, she said, is safety.
She cited a registered sex offender who had taken up residence in the park and used the women's bathroom in the Hall of Records.
"It does attract an element that we don't want to expose the public to," she said.
But Occupy Fresno protesters feel they are being targeted, and an attorney who represented the group in a legal battle against the county said he wants to talk with county officials about the ordinance changes and will be watching closely as they are rolled out.
On Friday, two Occupy Fresno protesters were at the encampment that has been a fixture in the park for two years.
"We're determined to keep this place together," said protester Matthew Thomas, 32. But, he admitted, the movement is long past its peak. He hoped to "relight that candle."
Thomas and the second protester sat under a canopy just back from Tulare Street. Behind them were their belongings — which clearly were in excess of 8 cubic feet.
There also is a fourth change in the park ordinance that could mean trouble for Occupy Fresno.
Language is being removed from the current ordinance that states the park "does not include City of Fresno owned sidewalks abutting the park, or the City of Fresno owned portion of the parking lot to the immediate north of Tulare Street."
Each evening, the Occupy Fresno protesters have moved to either the sidewalk or parking lot and set up tents where they sleep. In the morning, they once again set up their site inside the park.
Early on, Fresno County sheriff's deputies were arresting Occupy Fresno protesters and requiring permits to assemble. The group sued in federal court, alleging the county violated their First Amendment rights.
An agreement eventually was reached and a court order drawn up, but during the legal battle a judge upheld a prohibition on overnight loitering in the park. That prompted demonstrators to move to the nearby city sidewalks and parking lot at night.
County Counsel Kevin Briggs downplayed removing the language.
"This was not pointed at them," he said of Occupy Fresno.
He said nothing will change with relation to what is considered part of the park. The language was removed, he said, because it "states an obvious rule that the county ordinance doesn't apply to city property."
But Mims views it differently. She said her impression is those areas are now part of the park and, thus, part of the county's law enforcement jurisdiction.
As for the Occupy Fresno belongings, Mims said, "if they are going to stay there they are going to have to comply with the ordinance. It will affect how much stuff they will have."
Robert Navarro, an attorney for Occupy Fresno, said it "absolutely" appeared that Fresno County was gearing up to end the protesters' vigil once and for all.
"I don't think that it's technically in violation of the court order, but it does seem to be vindictive and unnecessary," Navarro said of some of the proposed ordinance changes.
Growing homeless camp at the park
Thomas, the Occupy Fresno protester, said the number of homeless camping out in the park has increased significantly since the city began dismantling downtown homeless encampments this year.
During daylight weekday hours, the park is a hive of activity. More than 30,000 jurors come to the downtown courthouse each year. City and county workers use it for transit and to relax on hot summer days. Major bus lines have stops around the park.
It features many statues and monuments, including the 18-foot-tall, copper-plate statue of legendary Armenian warrior David of Sassoon beside the Hall of Records, a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bust, and the Peace Officers Memorial.
Changes in the ordinance also note that "important governmental functions" are in buildings inside the park, including Board of Supervisors meetings in the Hall of Records, the Sheriff's Department headquarters and one of the county's jails.
As such, the ordinance changes note, "the county has a substantial and overriding government interest in preserving the security of these facilities and functions."
County Administrative Officer John Navarrette said it was Supervisors Chairman Henry R. Perea who initiated the effort to update the ordinance. Perea declined a request for a phone interview on the matter.
On Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 to approve a first reading of the ordinance. If it is approved on a second reading, the changes would become law a month afterwards.
There was little criticism of the changes. In fact, Supervisor Debbie Poochigian asked if the no-loitering hours could start even earlier — at 8 p.m.
The lone exception was Supervisor Andreas Borgeas. The newest supervisor, who is also an attorney, said he doesn't have a problem with most of the changes, but thinks that putting a hard limit on personal possessions will get the county sued.
Borgeas was the lone "no" vote on the ordinance changes.
He said that limit will disproportionately hurt the homeless, which could put the county in conflict with anti-homeless laws.
"This poses an unnecessary danger, in my opinion," he said.
It also could spark a pushback from the Occupy Fresno movement.
After finding out about the board's action, Navarro — the group's attorney — made inquiries with Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan. He also said he will reach out to county officials in the hope that any conflicts with protesters can be solved by talking it over.
"If that doesn't work," he said, "we'll check out our options."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, email@example.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.