by BRAD ROLLINS
Grappling again with questions about the limits of its own authority, the San Marcos city council on Tuesday tabled a graffiti ordinance that allows police officers to issue citations to people caught with permanent markers and spray paint under what they determine to be suspicious circumstances.
Part of a larger program that includes deployment of a soda blaster last year to remove graffiti citywide, the proposed ordinance also empowers law enforcement to cite parents who allow their kids to tag public or someone else’s private property or don’t do enough to stop it.
“Slowly but surely, we’re starting to do the eradication. [This ordinance] is intended to try to prevent graffiti being affixed in the first place. There are state laws in place prohibiting affixing graffiti in a public place but there is no way to intervene until the damage is already done,” said police chief Howard E. Williams.
But council members balked at the implications of giving officers leeway to decipher intent on the subject, especially since the ordinance would apply to “graffiti instruments” as benign as a Sharpie marker. Council member Kim Porterfield pointed out that she had such an instrument in her possession at the meeting prompting police officer Daniel Arredondo, the San Marcos Police Officers Association president, to pull one from his bag as well, which seemed to inadvertently underscoring their point.
Council member Chris Jones said city staff had not made the case that the limited circumstances under which the ordinance could be applied justifies passage of a new layer of municipal law.
“What I’m really waiting on is how this is going to actually resolve the issue. I don’t like the precedent we’re setting that we have to pass ordinances on specific issues that may not even resolve the issue,” Jones said.
Mayor Susan Narvaiz started out to defend the proposal even as she conceded it was headed to defeat.
“Alot of the things we deal with are driven by our citizens and their input to us. Nor do I believe that police have nothing to do that they’re just going to arbitrarily pull people out and give them a ticket for something they’re not really doing. They have too much going on in a growing community and we need to have faith that our officers have judgment. If we don’t have that faith, we don’t need to be employing them,” the mayor said.
But she later confessed her own reservations about aspects of the ordinance, saying at one point to Jones, “I don’t disagree with you. I’d rather we just move on though.”
The council voted unanimously to table the ordinance indefinitely on Narvaiz’s motion and a second from council member John Thomaides.
The punt followed a trend for the increasingly indecisive body. Two weeks ago, the council tabled a rewriting of city ordinances that includes such varied provisions as tightening a host responsibility ordinance aimed at easing raucous parties and guidelines for placing bulky items like yard debris on the curb for pickup. In December, the council unanimously passed a sweeping animal ordinance, an element of which requiring all pets in the city be micro-chipped has drawn heated opposition on similar grounds; the council is now posed to reconsider that provision at an upcoming meeting.
Speaking in opposition at the meeting’s start, once-and-future mayor candidate Dan McCarthy, a Texas State University student, said, “If there’s no graffiti, then there’s no crime. It’s beginning to look a lot like a police state in San Marcos.” (Yet, it should be noted, the ordinance is hardly radical relative to other Texas cities. Williams pointed out that it was taken word-for-word from other municipality’s codes.)
Since the soda blaster’s purchase in October, city workers have spent 80 hours eradicating graffiti mostly in parks, said Rodney Cobb, the Community Services division director. Efforts to expand the program to removing graffiti from private property ran up against liability questions, Cobb said, which are now being addressed with a waiver property owners can sign that grants city workers permission to remove graffiti.
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