PORT ANGELES — After about an hour of passionate public comment before a packed crowd concerning whether the city should install fencing around the Liberty Bell replica at Veterans Memorial Park, members of the Parks, Recreation & Beautification Commission agreed they are “on the fence about the fence.”
The volunteer board unanimously agreed Thursday night to create a subcommittee of three members of the commission and city staff to further discuss what interests should be represented and who should be involved when another subcommittee explores options for the park.
“I’ve been looking at all sides of this in the past few weeks … and I’ve been on the fence about the fence,” said commission chair Iris Winslow. “Really, what it comes down to from a commission standpoint is protecting an asset, but I’m listening to all the voices tonight.”
Winslow said those who are interested in being a part of the subcommittee — the one that explores what to do about the park — should attend the next commission meeting.
That meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 16 at the Port Angeles City Council Chambers, 321 E. Fifth St. The first subcommittee will meet prior to the meeting.
While the Parks, Recreation & Beautification Commission does not set city policy, it makes recommendations that are then considered by the City Council.
Veterans Memorial Park has become a gathering place for homeless people, some of whom have vandalized the bell and park.
Former Port Angeles Mayor Karen Rogers, one of the leaders of a community effort to raise funds for a decorative fence that would surround the structure that houses the Liberty Bell and protect it, told the commission that $7,000 has been donated already.
It has been estimated that a fence would cost about $17,000.
She said that if it becomes apparent that no action will be taken soon, then she will call those who have donated money to see if they want a refund.
“We are going to be responsible about the money and if the city isn’t going to do anything, we will return it, Rogers said.
Commission member Carol Sinton, who lives near the park, said some of the behavior at the park is scary.
“Unacceptable behavior is not acceptable, especially in a memorial park,” Sinton said. “So whatever solution we come up with … needs to protect everyone in town, including those who need shelter, but not at the expense of one of our assets.”
While many of the people who were packed into the Port Angeles City Council chambers were divided on whether a fence should be installed, most agreed that something has to change.
“The bigger question here … is your recommendation to the City Council about is this crossing the line of what our values are in Port Angeles,” said Jim Haguewood of Port Angeles. “That’s not a judgment of homelessness, it’s a judgment that says what’s been going on there is over the line and it needs to be dealt with.”
Those in favor of a fence spoke of protecting the Liberty Bell from vandalism and damage, while those against questioned the idea of keeping people out of a public place and urged other solutions for addressing homelessness, and substance abuse and mental health issues.
Rogers urged the commission to make a recommendation to the City Council to “restore and protect our city treasure,” a Liberty Bell replica forged at the same foundry as the original Liberty Bell that is located in Philadelphia.
“When you visit our Veterans Memorial Park, you should be able to close your eyes, imagine the voices, the conversations, the joys and the tears that have been shared at this site,” she said.
“However, in the last three years Veterans Memorial Park and the bell have been vandalized, trashed, inundated with drug use, inappropriate behavior, illicit sex and indecent exposure, the ground contaminated with human waste and urine.”
Becky McGinty, who set up a gofundme site to collect donations for the proposed fence, said on Friday that her family has a long history of military service going back to the Civil War and she feels veterans memorials are important.
“I have the utmost care and sympathy for the people who are there” and those causing damage, McGinty said.
“But this is a public property.
“If something doesn’t happen to protect it soon, it’s going to be destroyed.”
Gary Velie, president of the Clallam County Veterans Association, urged the commission to consider a fence.
In a letter read aloud during the meeting, Velie told the commission that among the veterans association’s most public events is the monthly bell ringing ceremony honoring veterans who have recently died.
“The perpetrators of this damage are those individuals who spend countless hours loitering, defacing and being disrespectful to the memories of those that served to protect our precious liberties,” Velie wrote.
“All the veterans and citizens alike are truly appalled at the amount of damage that continues to be done to this wonderful monument.”
He said damage includes graffiti to the bell’s surface, timber that has been whittled and carved upon and trash in the park despite a trash can provided by the city.
Parks and Recreation Director Corey Delikat told the commission that the discussion needs to be about protecting the city’s assets.
He said that while a decorative fence around the structure could cost about $17,000, replacing the bell itself would cost closer to $70,000.
The fence would have a gate in the front that could be opened for the monthly bell-ringing ceremony.
Delikat said the fence is not part of the city’s work plan at this point and that if approved by the City Council, much of the work — such as design considerations — would be done internally by the city.
It has not been decided how it would be funded, although donations are being accepted.
Amy Miller of the ReDiscovery Program — an outreach partnership between the Port Angeles Police Department and the Olympic Peninsula Community Clinic — spoke against building a fence.
She said she goes to the park daily with police officers to offer services, enforce laws, pour out beers, pick up trash and keep people safe — sometimes from themselves.
“Fencing doesn’t seem like the problem to focus on to me,” Miller said. “I think it’s a bad idea because it continues to make judgment and ostracize some of the people I enjoy spending time with and I would like to see donations go toward treatment solutions.”
She also suggested other solutions such as adding another trash can, adding a portable toilet and adding cameras — which Delikat said is expensive due to the costs of connecting cameras to existing infrastructure.
McGinty’s gofundme site at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-gofundmeveteransparkfence has prompted donations of $685 of a $17,000 goal.
Rogers said other donations have come to her from people who called her directly and dropped it off to her.
Donations toward the fence can be dropped off at the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce at 121 E. Railroad Ave. Checks can be made payable to the City of Port Angeles.
Rogers and McGinty, both Chamber board members, said the city and chamber are not sponsors of the fundraising effort.
Marc Abshire, executive director of the Chamber, said Friday that the extent of the Chamber’s involvement is as a collection point and that it has not taken a stand on the issue at this time.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].