With few items on the agenda, the Josephine County Commissioners’ meeting at Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass May 3 was dominated by a barrage of community condemnation over how local governments have handled park safety and cleanliness.
With the county’s acclaimed Boatnik Memorial Day celebration slated for next week, the outcry over urban camping and blight at Riverside Park is reaching a fever pitch, particularly as reports of drug paraphernalia and other trash being discarded by campers seem to be at an all-time high.
Brian Walden, who said he was on the committee to recall Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol, expressed his frustration.
“There’s a lot of people, like myself, that are really, really upset about what’s happening at all our parks, especially Riverside,” Walden said. “I’m a big car fan; put my old truck in the car show for nine years. Now that’s gone to the fairgrounds and the reason why is the director told me that they cannot with a million dollars general liability assume the unsafe conditions of Riverside Park. It will be sued if a child steps on a heroin needle.”
Walden went on, “This has got to stop. Why are there no rules that we’ve applied to the homeless in Riverside Park. They’re there 24/7 now. There’s no police enforcement or anything to remove them in the morning and come back at night.”
His group also wants the parks “to be inspected by someone that can analyze the ground to see the urine and the feces that are in the ground now. People in the park there at Riverside make a toilet out of every tree and bush they can find.”
Walden’s ominous closing statement was, “You’re not supposed to urinate in public, but it’s happening every day. It just goes on and on and on and there is absolutely no law enforcement to deal with this problem. This is just going to get worse and worse and worse.”
Kathy Millard was similarly vexed, her initial remarks being, “Our parks are a mess.”
She shared a rumor she’d heard that the Grants Pass Rotary Club paid unhoused individuals to move out of Riverside Park last year during Boatnik and they are in the process of doing so again.
“We’re going to pay homeless to move so Boatnik can happen? I don’t know if that’s true but I’d like to know,” Millard said.
Growing emotional, Millard went on, “We just need help. They are wrecking our life. I’m sorry but it’s taking away our life, our enjoyment. We can’t have concerts in the park anymore. They should be made to move.”
“I think the situation down in Riverside Park and this situation all over in the city parks has just got us all throwing our hands,” remarked Commissioner Dan DeYoung. He laid the blame for the situation squarely on Grants Pass city officials.
“They just throw their hands up and they say they can’t, they can’t, they can’t, they can’t, they can’t, they can’t and then I just wonder how much of that is they won’t instead of they can’t,” DeYoung said.
He encouraged outraged community members to continue making their voices heard to the city government, saying, “You’re not going to be ignored any longer.”
DeYoung shed doubts on rumors the Grants Pass Rotary Club was paying off unhoused people to vacate Riverside Park, clarifying first that it isn’t Rotary, but the Grants Pass Active Club that puts on Boatnik. His belief was that the Active Club is given the authority to trespass urban campers during the week of Boatnik.
His final point was opining that the problem of homelessness is not a nationwide occurrence, as he has heard some people say, but rather a “blue state” problem, and that Oregon is a “pretty deep color blue anymore.”
“I’m probably going to get some backlash over this,” Commissioner John West said, “but I’m going to say it anyway: The city hasn’t done their job.”
West added that he feels the Grants Pass City Council continually makes excuses about why they can’t deal with the problem, mostly concerning a pending lawsuit related to trespassing individuals from parks.
“They’ve got their own mission and I don’t know what that is but it’s not to serve the citizens that want to use the park,” West opined.
Board Chair Herman Baertschiger took an extremely partisan stance responding to a citizen that complained about campaign signs being stolen out of people’s yards.
“We’re a two-party system and one party will do anything it takes to win an election in the United States anymore. There’s no integrity with that party. I’m sorry but that’s my opinion.”
Baertschiger’s voice raised as he aired grievances about both the city of Grants Pass and Oregon state’s handling of homelessness.
“Who thought 10 years ago that shooting up heroin in a park would be legal!?” the board chair exclaimed. “Who thought 10 years ago that defecating in our city parks would be okay! Why does a fraction of the population who continuously breaks the law drive the agenda? It’s absolutely unbelievable.”
Baertschiger did say that the board met with JoCo Public Health Director Michael Weber to put together a group to examine Baker, Riverside and Fussing parks for health hazards, but “that’s about all the authority we have in city limits.”
JoCo Recreation Director Tamara Martin spoke briefly during requests and comments from citizens to promote the grand opening of the new Tom Pierce Park playground the following day at 3:30 p.m.
“It is a beautiful playground,” said Martin. “Three stories. Really neat elements that are all inclusive that allows children of all abilities to come in and play. In addition we’ve renovated the restrooms as well as the picnic shelters so there are some really neat areas and spaces. If you’re looking for a safe space to play for your kids, definitely come check out Tom Pierce Park.”
Several county employees were recognized for their service May 3. The full list is as follows:
Christopher Larson, Facilities – 25 years; Christopher Witcherly, Surveyor’s Office – 15 years; Christine Shepard, Public Health – 5 years; Michelle Garfield Marlow, Community Development – 5 years; Gerald Dempster, Sheriff’s Office – 5 years; Jessica Sterford, Juvenile Justice – 5 years; Ryan Johnson
Dirks, Facilities – 5 years; Nicholas Craig, Sheriff’s Office – 5 years; Mark Walker, Public Works – 5 years; and Jeff Smith, Surveyor’s Office – 5 years.
None of the aforementioned personnel were present at the meeting to accept their certificates.
“We would just like to reiterate on behalf of the Board of County Commissioners and the citizens of Josephine County, we would like to recognize these people for their service here in Josephine County,” Baertschiger said.