St. Louis Board of Aldermen delay final vote on buffer zone bill for second straight week

PHOTO: Planned Parenthood protest in St. Louis, by Paul Sableman

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen will have to wait at least another week to take a final vote on a bill that would create a buffer zone between protesters and healthcare facilities, including Planned Parenthood.

If passed, the new law would increase safety around health facilities by creating an eight-foot buffer zone between protesters and the facilities.

The bill states that no one “shall knowingly enter, remain on, or create any obstruction within the driveway of a health care facility or within a public way or sidewalk within eight feet of any portion of such facility’s driveway during the facility’s posted business hours.”

With the legislative session quickly coming to a close, the bill would need to get final passage in the next week before the board goes on spring break, otherwise it would likely die.

St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia

Although the board perfected Board Bill 34 by a slim vote of 15-13 on Feb. 23, supporters of the bill were still missing some yes votes, including Alderman Joseph Roddy, 17th Ward, Alderwoman Megan E. Green, 15th Ward, and Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, 5th Ward, all of whom were absent Friday, prompting bill sponsor Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, 6th Ward, to wait on a vote.

Supporters of the bill appear to have the votes nearly two weeks ago, but with such a narrow margin it was clear they needed all present in order to ensure they get the necessary 15 votes for final passage.

Ingrassia has said she’s still confident it will pass, but others say support for the measure may be waning.

While the bill only refers to healthcare facilities, its introduction stems from a series of calls to law enforcement at the only Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis. Calls of impeding traffic, which is stopped by protesters at the clinic on Forest Park Parkway, as well as peace disturbances, rose from 38 in 2015 to 73 in 2017, according to Ingrassia.

Since its introduction, however, some critics have claimed it infringes upon First Amendment rights. At least 13 Aldermen, including Alderwoman Carol Howard, 14th Ward, who called the bill “a slippery slope”, said the approval will only warrant more buffer zones at other places in the near future.

St. Louis City Hall

Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, 1st Ward, said she supports a woman’s right to have a choice but fears greater implications on protesters with the passage of the bill.

She also urged the Planned Parenthood clinic to put up a sign telling patients where to go, so that they may avoid protesters altogether.

Alderwoman Sarah Martin, 11th Ward, said the bill is less about protesting and more about “sidewalk counselors” who often mislead prospective patients.

Others voiced support for the measure, including Alderwoman Cara Spencer, 20th Ward, who noted that Planned Parenthood provides more services beyond just abortion, such as well woman exams and STD testing.

Similar laws have been passed in New York and Chicago. Supporters argue they offer a clearer avenue to charge those who impede the flow of traffic in and out of healthcare facilities such as Planned Parenthood.

If the bill gets final passage, violating the ordinance, or blocking entry or exit from a facility such as the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, would be punishable by up to $500 in fines or up to 90 days in jail.

In other business, a highly anticipated bill that grants subpoena power to the St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board cleared yet another hurdle with little opposition.

The board perfected Board Bill 233 by a vote of 18-3, with Alderman Joseph Vollmer, 10th Ward, Alderman Joesph Vacarro, 23rd Ward, and Aderman Tom Oldenburg, 16th Ward, voting no.

If given final passage, the measure would empower the COB to issue subpoenas to compel the appearance of witnesses, produce documents, recordings and other evidence which the COB determines in its reasonable judgment are relevant and necessary to its thorough Inspection and Review of Complaints of misconduct by members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, which may be subject to COB independent investigation.

The oversight board, a seven-member group of appointed city residents, has been reviewing complaints of police misconduct since May 2016. The board’s Public Safety Committee voted to unanimously pass Board Bill 233 for subpoena power on Feb. 28.

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