EUGENE, Ore. — After more than three hours of discussion, the Lane County Board of Commissioners voted to close down the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza.
The board cited public health and safety concerns as a major motivator behind their move. The closure will also include the county-owned land around the plaza as well as the “butterfly” parking lot, not far away.
The decision came down to a vote of four to one with Commissioner Pete Sorenson being the sole vote against the closure.
“Homelessness in Eugene or anywhere in America is a tragedy,” said Becky, a market vendor.
Most everyone who spoke during the special session appeared to agree with that statement.
“And helping them in their time of need is the right thing for anyone to do,” Becky said.
And even that one, but how that should be done was definitely up for interpretation.
“The way to ask for help is not to invade public property, leaving messes in your wake, with no regard for the safety of others or the law,” Becky said.
That was just part of the extensive discussion.
“That area out there has gone through a lot in the last couple of weeks, but to say that it is a mess. Those folks haven’t been out there talking to people and looking at what’s been done,” said Mary, who’s with SLEEPS.
Following public comments, county counsel revealed to the board a number of complaints from downtown residents and employees regarding their health and safety concerns, noting a 20-percent increase in public safety calls for service to the area during the same time periods in June and July.
In the end, the presentations given resulted in a majority vote to clean the plaza, which meant shutting it down for a period of time. The county will use the closure to clean the areas, which could last up to a week. After that, the area will be re-opened during the day, but closed at night between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
And though there were heated arguments about whether this was an infringement on freedom of speech, the reasoning behind Commissioner Sorenson’s dissenting vote, majority board members insist it’s not about clamming people up.
“The motion also included–and this was a recommendation by Commissioner Stewart–that we work very diligently to make sure that there is available space for free speech,” said Sid Leiken, Lane County Commissioner.
The closure was effective immediately. Eugene Police officers were actually outside as soon as the meeting let out to make sure the area was cleared for cleaning.