A hot topic discussion item drove citizens to the Monday, April 2 Oakdale City Council meeting to voice their opinions, both for and against, the proposed action to ban all alcohol from city parks.
Both sides of the argument felt strongly about their positions but there seemed to be an agreement that a problem does indeed exist, however the solution continues to elude the city on how address the problems repeatedly created by a core group of people.
The people in question — a group of approximately 20 citizens most people identify as transients — are generally responsible for a lot of the destruction to the city’s parks due to their penchant for drinking and brawling with one another.
Of the 109 incidents reported in 2011 at area parks, 63 percent were transient-related.
Currently, Dorada Park is the only city park that prohibits drinking due to the children’s play park located on the grounds.
Wood Park, the second most popular hang-out for the people in question, has suffered repeated damage to the gazebo and benches, and some community members have expressed a reluctance to frequent that particular park for fear of the transients who have staked their claim.
The transients have been seen urinating or defecating in the parks, destroying property and littering.
This issue, and the heartburn it creates, is not new.
“No other cities in the county allow drinking in the parks,” Interim Police Chief Lester Jenkins said. “There is no fiscal impact to creating the ordinance except the increase in citations until people become used to the (new) law.”
Jenkins admitted there was no easy answer to this embarrassing issue.
The audience seemed split, some in favor, others not, of passing the ordinance.
One community member, Alice Garcia, wanted the cemeteries included in the park ordinance as transients have been known to slink off to the cemeteries to carouse late at night.
Mike Hancock, a Burchell Hill resident and TAGS (Team up Against Graffiti) city volunteer, was in favor of the ordinance, saying, “We’ve had a lot of problems in our park until we made some changes.”
Burchell Hill Park has a curfew and an alcohol ban, changes that the residents were able to make because they pay a fee to maintain the park.
“It’s okay to pass these laws to protect our parks and assets,” Hancock said. “You don’t see families in Wood Park because it’s not a nice place to be. It makes sense to do this.”
Virginia Camacho called Wood Park, because of its central location within the heart of the city, the city’s calling card.
“That particular park is important to Oakdale,” she said.
But the argument swung the other way as former Mayor Farrell Jackson pointed out that it’s unfair to the law abiding citizens to make a law that would punish everyone, instead of the handful of citizens who are creating the problem.
“If there are 20 individuals causing the problem, deal with them. If they’re drunk, arrest them. Don’t put up with them,” Jackson said, adding he and his wife enjoy a glass of wine at Kerr Park now and then when they take their grandchildren for a picnic. “It’s not right to penalize the majority because of the minority. We don’t need more government; we need less government.”
Scott Hogg, a business owner adjacent to Wood Park agrees there’s a problem but isn’t sure more laws are the answer either.
“The question is, what would make things any different?” he said.
Councilmember Tom Dunlop agreed more laws on the books wasn’t the answer.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Dunlop said. “The police department is spread pretty thin right now. It’s not as easy as just banning alcohol in the parks. We’re just going to push them somewhere else. It’s not as cut and dry as you think. I’m not in a mood as a policy maker to pass more laws when we can’t enforce the ones we have. We have bigger fish to fry than the problem of drinking in the parks.”
Councilwoman Katherine Morgan agreed, saying, “I don’t think it’s a deterrent. I feel our hands are tied.”
Councilmember Michael Brennan echoed Jackson’s sentiment, saying, “I’m not going to penalize the law abiding citizens.”
Jenkins is also not the first police chief to suggest passing an ordinance prohibiting alcohol in the city parks.
And the current city council is not the first to decline the suggestion.
However, suggestions for solutions were called for, including the installation of more surveillance cameras throughout the city.
“I’d like to see a lot more cameras around town. The question is money,” Jenkins said.
The formation of a citizen committee to gather community input for solutions was suggested by Mayor Pat Paul.