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Proposed ordinance puts crime onus on motels

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Last Thursday, the Claremont Police Commission sent a clear message that prostitution and other crimes centered around the motels in the south part of town will no longer be left to fester.

By a unanimous vote, the commission passed a draft nuisance ordinance that, if adopted, would put pressure on the owners of Knights Inn, Claremont Lodge and Motel 6 to curb the criminal activities at their properties or face sanctions, including the possibility of losing business licenses.

The resolution is just a framework at this point, and it will be up to the city attorney and ultimately the city council to create the final ordinance. However, that could occur fairly quickly, according to commissioner Caleb Mason, who co-authored the draft ordinance.

Mason and fellow commissioner, Becky Margiotta, worked on the draft for several months as part of an ad hoc committee charged with addressing the growing problem. The committee was formed last year following frequent public complaints about the mostly young women, openly soliciting sex for sale in the area around Indian Hill Boulevard and the 10 Freeway.

Open and blatant prostitution seems to have escalated since Los Angeles County District Attorney, George Gascon, issued Special Order 20-07 under which his office will not prosecute certain misdemeanor offenses including loitering to commit prostitution.

Residents, as well as the commission and police, agree that the problem has become difficult to control and includes much more serious crimes, which include human trafficking. A host of other criminal activity envelops the motels, including drug dealing, thefts, robberies and frequent occurrences of domestic violence.

“A lot of citizens expressed concerns that the motels simply were a massive public nuisance and that the quality of life for everybody in the city is being degraded. And, that the situation has been going on for quite a while and has been getting worse in the last few years, and its time for someone to do something,” Mason said. “We on this commission are part of that someone.”

The ad hoc committee’s draft ordinance requires the managers or owners of the motels to keep a detailed register of guests, including capturing an image of the person’s identification document. Managers must refuse to rent a room to anyone who does not provide acceptable identification.

Any guest paying with cash would also have to present a valid credit card that the manager would then be required to verify through the card issuer.

The motel managers would be prohibited from renting rooms for less than a full day’s rate, and can’t re-rent the same room again for an 18-hour period if someone checks out early. For example, if somebody checks in at 9 p.m. that room would not be available again until 3 p.m. the following day.

All of the motels must install and maintain closed circuit television cameras “sufficient to maintain continuous visual coverage of all common areas and all parking areas.” And the video footage must be maintained for a minimum of 30 days.

The owners and managers must make everything covered under the ordinance — including register logs, records, common areas, parking lots and video — available to law enforcement upon request.

Additionally, the committee recommends that “the city council should direct the city attorney to research and consider available legal processes, including potential actions and remedies under California’s public nuisance and Red Light Abatement laws.”

Most of the provisions in Claremont’s draft came from the city of Long Beach’s ordinance, which officials there have found to be very successful in reducing crime.

Following a short discussion, the commission elected to add language to the draft ordinance that required parking areas be restricted to registered guests and visitors who agreed to show an ID.

Commissioner Rafik Mohamed expressed concern that requiring everyone to have a credit card might result in unintended discrimination of people who have poor or no credit but are law-abiding citizens.

Mason responded that in other cities with similar ordinances, the credit card requirement was effective in reducing certain crimes.

“If you’re going to rent a room for the purposes of prostitution you are typically not going to want to put it on your credit card.” Mason said.

Nonetheless, the final draft added language for the council to consider the impact of economic discrimination.

Commissioner Jon Strash asked what the recourse would be if a manager or owner failed to comply with the ordinance.

“Ultimately, the hammer would be losing the license to do business in our city,” Mason responded.

“The goal is to gain compliance, not to be punitive. So, typically it would start off with correction letters, letting the owner know these are the codes that you are violating or falling short of. Giving them time for corrections, and if they don’t meet those deadlines we’d start off with administrative fines and they usually ramp up from there,” Police Chief Aaron Fate said.

The task of enforcing the ordinance would fall not only on the shoulders of police, but on any employee who conducts code or public safety enforcement.

Mason gave much of the credit for the planned ordinance to the diligent work of the safe and healthy housing committee, and specifically, Claremont resident Jim Keith. Mason expressed his hope that the council would look at Keith’s suggestions and incorporate more of them into the final ordinance.

The next step will be for City Attorney Alisha Patterson to evaluate the draft, and to work with the council on a final version. After that it would be placed on a future city council agenda for public input and a final vote.

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