Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information regarding when the camping ordinance will again go before council members. It is currently slated to appear on the agenda for the regular council meeting on Aug. 23.
AURORA | The Aurora City Council deadlocked Monday night on a proposal that would allow the city to dismantle homeless encampments without cause across Aurora, effectively killing the measure in the short term and dealing bill sponsor Mayor Mike Coffman a political blow after months of testy public meetings on the topic.
The mayor’s so-called camping ban sought to allow city workers to clear homeless camps after three days warning and only if staffers could assure campers some kind of shelter space in the city. After amending an earlier version of the measure, Coffman’s currently proposed ban would allow the city to clear camps on public property without providing a specific reason. Anyone who refuses to leave an encampment could be fined or jailed.
Currently, the city must make an internal case to force campers away based on critical health or safety concerns. That policy is a result of federal mandates for cities to forgo camping bans during the pandemic.
Because the measure failed on a 5-5 tie vote and not by a majority of council members, it is required to again be heard at the next regular meeting on Aug. 23, city spokesperson Michael Brannen confirmed Tuesday morning. At the end of Monday’s session, Coffman incorrectly indicated that he could not bring the measure before the council for another six months under the body’s rules of procedure.
If the measure again results in a tie vote at the upcoming meeting, it will be considered dead until February, according to the council rules. The proposal could, in theory, be reintroduced sooner if “any substantive changes are made” to the ordinance, according to the rules.
Coffman has signaled he plans to bring the proposal back in 2022, when the dais will have at least four new members. Two current at-large members are not seeking re-election, one ward seat remains vacant, and another has a term-limited incumbent. Only north Aurora’s Crystal Murillo is vying to defend her seat.
Coffman’s proposal has fallen squarely along political divides on the polarized city council for months, as evidenced by a thumbs-down vote from one local policy committee controlled by Democrats, and another symbolic vote of approval by a committee steered by Republicans earlier this summer.
At the meeting Monday, Democratic members characterized the proposal as ineffective policy that would merely shuffle people throughout the city instead of getting them into long-term housing.
“We’re just playing whack-a-mole,” Councilmember Juan Marcano said. “This isn’t a solution.”
Shelley McKittrick, the city’s former homelessness program director, called any ban on public camping “cruel” and “traumatizing.”
“I miss the days of Mayor (Steve) Hogan,” McKittirck said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “He understood the humanity and compassion needed, and this ordinance is neither.”
Hogan, a political staple in Aurora for decades, died following a cancer diagnosis in May 2018.
Republican members of the council, including Coffman, said the policy is not a panacea, but a necessary step toward addressing homelessness in the region.
“This is another tool in our tool belt to address this issue,” Councilmember Curtis Gardner said.
Coffman underscored his desire to add additional sheltering options in the city despite his measure’s failure. The city typically has about 150 shelter beds available at Comitis Crisis Center on any given day, though that total can be padded some by motel vouchers given to domestic violence victims or emergency shelters opened during extremely cold weather. A safe camping space for vehicles was set up this spring in the parking lot of the Restoration Christian Fellowship on a temporary basis.
“Council ought to be concerned about what that alternative location is irrespective of what the outcome is today,” Coffman said of a possible sanctioned camping area in the city.
Officials with the city’s housing department said staffers continue to evaluate where such a campsite could be anchored in Aurora.
In the past year, the city has abated about 30 camps while using a temporary policy tethered to pandemic-related protocols, according to city documents. The memorandum will end when the current federal disaster order related to COVID-19 ends, but Assistant City Attorney Tim Joyce suggested Monday that local officials could hold onto the authority within the policy post-pandemic.
Coffman publicly sparred with Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson during the meeting, saying he “strongly disagreed” with her assertion that police should not be tasked with clearing camps of people without homes.
“Our residents are concerned about the health and safety of their neighborhoods and feel that this is really a challenge to that, and I’m just shocked at your answer,” he told the chief.
Wilson said police currently assist officials with agencies like the Department of Transportation to sweep camps only because that is the current expectation.
“As the chief of police, I have been very clear that I do not want to be a part of enforcing this ban,” Wilson said. “ … Right now we’re doing this because we don’t have any other options, but I think as a city we can do better.”
Both Wilson and Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown expressed their trepidation toward Coffman’s proposal when it was first introduced earlier this spring, with Brown lamenting that it would invariably increase the population of an already crowded county jail and ding county coffers.
Residents have lodged about 900 complaints related to camps in the city in the past year, though about half of those were in reference to RVs parked in various city locations, according to city data.
Several other Front Range municipalities, including Boulder, Arvada, Parker, Centennial and Denver have ordinances on the books that allow officials to sweep camps.
At the end of the regular council meeting Monday, members voted 6-3 to bypass the city charter and allow people with certain felony convictions to run for a spot on the dais to comport with state law.
The ordinance stems from the intended, at-large candidacy of Candice Bailey, an activist who sued the city earlier this year after learning she’d be barred from running in the November election due to a some 20-year-old conviction for second-degree assault.
Several council members expressed concern that the ordinance would violate the city’s own rules, but outside counsel retained by city management argued that the measure puts Aurora in lockstep with the Colorado Constitution.
“The bottom line tonight is that we will be voting on a code modification that specifically violates our charter as written,” Councilmember Dave Gruber said.
Proponents of the change said Gruber’s alarm is a political distraction even though this is the second time councilors have technically allowed themselves to violate their own charter in the past month.
The attorney, Gerald Dahl, said the ordinance paves the way for the city to clean up its illegal charter language via a citywide ballot measure in the coming years.
“You’ll be voting on a code modification that brings the code into conformance with the state constitution,” Dahl said. “And, in my opinion, you have a choice between acting to bring the code into conformance with the state constitution or leaving it out of compliance with the constitution. You take door number one, and that’s what we’ve advised.”
Bailey has said that she is still awaiting a judge’s ruling on the matter before moving forward with her candidacy.
Nominating petitions for all city council races must be turned in and certified by the city clerk’s office by Aug. 24.