City Council approves first reading to create drug-free ‘civic centers’

The Olympia City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance Tuesday to establish drugfree zones at five “civic centers” in the downtown area.

The ordinance would enhance penalties for felony drug-dealing offenses within 1,000 feet of the civic centers. In some cases, the enhancements could add two years to a standard oneyear sentence for people who are caught dealing in these zones, said Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, noting that the law can increase the likelihood of an offender seeking drug treatment as part of sentencing.

If an offender is prohibited by a judge from entering the drug-free zone, the ordinance gives police more authority to arrest the person who violates that court order, Tunheim said.

The council voted 5-1 to send the ordinance to a second reading at the April 15 council meeting. Councilman Jim Cooper voted no, citing a need for more information involving the financial implications of the ordinance. Councilman Steve Langer was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Cooper had made a motion to table the ordinance for a month, but the motion was voted down by the other council members. Although he said he hopes the ordinance reduces drug-related crime downtown, Cooper said the law focuses on enforcement and incarceration instead of treatment and prevention for drug offenders.

“We have a systemic problem, and we need to fix it” Cooper said.

Mayor Stephen Buxbaum acknowledged Cooper’s point about needing more information and said Olympia is limited in the way it can influence these systemic changes.

At the council meeting, Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts said the zones are among several strategies aimed at reducing the distribution of illegal drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine in downtown Olympia. In 2014, the Police Department added a second officer to its downtown walking patrol, and on April 1, the department restored a paid detective to the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force.

Roberts noted that the zones can also have an economic impact because the presence of drug-related activity discourages the public’s use of downtown facilities. This point was echoed by Olympia resident Pam Kentner, who spoke during the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting. Kentner said she is concerned about the safety of the downtown area and said the ordinance will help strengthen the city.

“I am concerned that Olympia has become a magnet for the homeless and drug use” she told the council.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com