State

Modesto council votes 4-3 to require reservations, fees for use of McClatchy Park

The Modesto City Council addressed persistent complaints about homeless people in McClatchy Square by approving a plan restricting use of the downtown park to those who make reservations and pay fees.

Council members disagreed about how to deal with sanitation issues and reports of public intoxication and drug dealing at the park. But the motion carried on a 4-3 vote Tuesday.

People will need to make reservations to use McClatchy Park, at 15th and I streets. Police will step up enforcement and city officials will talk with charitable groups that give food to homeless people at the park.

Mayor Jim Ridenour and council members Brad Hawn, Dave Lopez and Joe Muratore supported the plan to essentially take back the park from the homeless. Dave Geer, Garrad Marsh and Kristin Olsen were opposed, saying they would rather try other alternatives.

"We need to do something different (with the park) and we need to do it tonight," Muratore said.

The move was supported by downtown business owners who say the behavior of homeless people has discouraged others from using the small park. The park has no restrooms, and the city often hears complaints about public urination, alcohol use, drug dealing and verbal abuse of park visitors.

McClatchy Newspapers and The Modesto Bee donated the square to the city in about 1995 as a place where people could have lunch or take a break from work. It includes a rose garden dedicated to Julio and Aileen Gallo.

Business owner Terry Swehla, whose office is less than 50 feet from the square, urged the council to "take something that has degenerated and make it something the city can be proud of."

Swehla, whose son co-owns a business with Muratore, said his employees no longer feel safe and he often walks his staff members to their cars after work.

Others said people were coming down too hard on the homeless.

"Why are you going to give this away?" said Bob Shook of Modesto. "What happened to mercy and compassion."

Modesto attorney Robert Farrace, who has served as an advocate for the homeless, said the city should first try to enforce laws that prohibit public urination, drunkenness and other offenses reported at the park.

He suggested that charitable groups give food to the homeless at their facilities. The city could address the sanitation issues by providing portable toilets at the park, he added.

Councilman Marsh said moving the food programs might alleviate the problems. Olsen wanted people who work or conduct business downtown to have the option of having their lunch at the park without paying a fee.

City officials are talking with the McHenry Museum Foundation about handling the reservations. Family or other groups wanting to reserve the park would have to pay a $45-an-hour fee. The city currently charges that fee for reserving exclusive use of the park for weddings and other functions.

Julie Hannon, city parks and recreation director, said school groups visiting the McHenry Mansion could still use McClatchy Park, located across the street, for a $1-per-hour charge.

If the new plan doesn't work, city officials have talked about fencing the park or giving it to the McHenry Mansion Foundation.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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