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Marysville City Council adopts 'Stay Out of Drug Area' downtown

MARYSVILLE — On Feb. 13, the Marysville City Council adopted new laws establishing a "Stay Out of Drug Area" downtown to deter drug-related criminal activity and impose stiffer penalties on repeat offenders, and amended existing laws aimed at reducing aggressive panhandling and lewd conduct in public places.

According to Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, the SODA zone and amended laws are in response to a growing perception among business owners, residents and park-goers that downtown is an unsafe place, at a time when city leaders are ramping up downtown and waterfront revitalization.

"These proactive measures are the first steps in an initiative aimed at providing a safer, cleaner and more inviting downtown, and keeping our momentum going on downtown revitalization," Nehring said. "We want to send a clear message to residents and business owners that we are getting tougher on drug trafficking and other criminal behavior in our downtown district, and it won't be tolerated. These new laws will give our police and judges new tools to enforce and dispense our laws to the fullest."

The SODA ordinance establishes the designation of an anti-drug activity area within the downtown based on citizens' and businesses' complaints, crime data and police observations, and sets the conditions under which defendants charged or convicted on drug-related offenses in Marysville Municipal Court can be barred for two years or more from the SODA area, and subject to contact or re-arrest if they ignore the "stay out" court order, Lt. Darin Rasmussen said.

The "stay out" zone encompasses First north to Ninth Street and from Ash Avenue along I-5 east to Alder, an area that accounts for more than 20 percent of drug-related crime in Marysville, yet geographically represents only two percent of the city, which covers about 21 square miles, according to Marysville Police Cmdr. Robb Lamoureux.

Testimony shared at the public hearing included crime data and observed suspicious or criminal activity by police and parks personnel.

Crime Analyst Don Castanares explained that the SODA area leads Marysville in a variety of tracked crimes, including theft, burglary, vehicle prowls and assaults.

Citywide, drug-related cases increased 22 percent between 2010 and 2011, from 418 to 511, while arrests grew 36 percent from 337 to 459. At the same time, drug-related cases in the SODA zone increased 12 percent from 76 to 85, but accounted for 93 of the 459 drug-related arrests in 2011.

"That means that the SODA area is responsible for 20 percent of all drug-related arrests," Castanares said. "That's a pretty significant amount considering that the SODA area is two percent of Marysville."

Marysville Police Officer Jon Elton is a member of the Marysville Police Department's NITE Team, a pro-active group of officers that focus on neighborhood livability by targeting and resolving high-volume criminal activity that includes narcotics arrests and investigations.

"For the team, this SODA area is our main area of focus that we emphasize every single day when we come to work," said Elton, who had raised the idea, one year ago, of establishing a SODA zone, as elected officials were seeking to address crime, code enforcement and general unattractiveness downtown.

From intelligence gathered through controlled buys and confidential informants, firsthand observation of numerous drug transactions by the NITE Team and other officers, as well as crime data, the boundaries for the SODA zone became obvious.

The high drug-trafficking hot spots are Beach Avenue at Second and Fourth Streets, and Comeford Park at Fifth Street and Delta Avenue. The stops along Beach Avenue are appealing to drug traffickers because of easy access to and from I-5.

Maryke Burgess, recreation coordinator for the Ken Baxter Community Center in Comeford Park, described the park as a wonderful place for families, children and senior citizens, especially since improvements such as the Rotary Gazebo were installed a few years ago. However, since 2010 she has seen a noticeable rise in teens and at-risk youth loitering in groups after school hours, suspicious behavior such as hand maneuvers and exchanges that could suggest drug or gang activity, and frequent trips back and forth to parked vehicles and public restrooms.

"This activity has created an intimidating environment, at times, to families with young children there to enjoy the park," Burgess said.

In one instance, she reported seeing a young girl inhaling from an aerosol can under the playground slide, and then passing out in front of her as Burgess approached. She summoned an aid car to treat and transport the girl.

Nehring urged residents and workers in the SODA to help by calling 911 when observing suspicious activity or perceived criminal behavior.

"It is important to report these types of activity going forward so that we can establish a more thorough record of illegal or inappropriate behavior downtown," Nehring said.

Council also members amended the city's existing aggressive panhandling ordinance. The law bans begging with the intent to coerce or intimidate a person into giving money or goods, and prevents interfering or blocking people on foot or in a vehicle that causes them to need to take evasive action to avoid physical contact.

Police were quick to emphasize that the general activity of panhandling as most drivers and pedestrians observe it is protected, constitutional free speech. When it crosses the line is outlined in the city code, which is when it becomes a crime.

Coercive solicitation is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.

The Council likewise added a new section for lewd contact to the penal code that covers public indecency, prostitution and sex crimes.

An individual is guilty of the misdemeanor of lewd conduct if they intentionally perform lewd acts in a public place where their activity is visible to the public. The crime includes exposure of private parts and inappropriate touching or overt sexual acts, simulating certain of those same acts, public urination or other activities in a manner that is likely to cause reasonable affront or alarm.

Nehring commended the city's police and legal departments for their work in delivering a package of laws written to satisfy constituent concerns and survive constitutional challenges. He went on to praise the Council members for approving them.

"Our key focus with all of these laws is the safety of our citizens, both pedestrians and drivers, business owners and visitors who come to Marysville to enjoy our parks, downtown and shopping," Nehring said.

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