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Commentary: Bike law would discriminate against the homeless

July 06, 2012|By Eleanor Egan

The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday evening voted unanimously in favor of a new ordinance that, if adopted at the next public meeting, would "forbid rich and poor alike" to park a bicycle, except in a bike rack, on a public or semipublic (whatever that means) right of way or to tether it to a pole, hydrant, etc.

Any bicycle so found would be impounded, along with any personal belongings attached to it, and the owner would have to pay for storage in order to claim it and would be subject to a fine of $10. After 90 days, unclaimed bikes and personal belongings would be sold.

The ordinance is broadly drawn to cover many potential instances of parking a bicycle, including leaving a bicycle outside a store while one goes in to buy something, unless the store happens to have a bike rack. However, the staff report and council members' remarks made it plain that the ordinance is specifically directed against homeless people and would not be enforced against anyone else.

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Prior to the council's vote, I pointed out that the ordinance was overly broad; all that was needed to solve the problems the ordinance ostensibly addressed was authority to impound a bike that was obstructing a right of way or was parked for 72 hours in the same place and presumed abandoned.

Taking up more space than one slot in a bike rack with personal belongings could also be legitimately prohibited. I also warned that if the ordinance were enforced only against homeless people, the city would be accused of discrimination.

In a roundabout way, the council may have accidentally hit upon a way to reduce poverty in Costa Mesa. Once the ordinance is enforced in a discriminatory way, a person whose property is impounded and sold will sue the city and win a substantial judgment.

So, the numbers of poor people will be less by one person — unless, that is, a whole group of homeless people sue, or if it's a class action, in which case a lot of poor people will no longer be poor.

ELEANOR EGAN is a longtime Costa Mesa resident.

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