.Sausalito Homeless Union Claims City Mistreated Residents of City-Sanctioned Camp

The Sausalito Homeless Union and the City of Sausalito are scheduled to face off again in the U.S. District Court of Northern California next month. Court documents filed last week by the homeless union argue that Sausalito should be held in contempt for failing to protect and causing harm to the residents of the city-sanctioned homeless encampment, an alleged violation of a previous court order.

“When the City of Sausalito moved the encampment to Marinship Park, they assumed responsibility to make it safe,” Anthony Prince, attorney for the Sausalito Homeless Union, said in an interview. “The court order permitting the move said the basis was safety. The city has a duty of care, which they wouldn’t have had if they had let the residents stay at Dunphy Park. Our motion is to hold them in contempt of court because they haven’t made the encampment safe.”

The parties have been embroiled in a lawsuit since February, one that has cost Sausalito approximately $500,000 so far, City Manager Chris Zapata said at a city council meeting in September. The Sausalito Homeless Union is represented pro bono by Prince.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

The Homeless Union’s new accusations against Sausalito include the assault of two female campers by police personnel, the city’s failure to protect the sanctioned encampment at Marinship from the “bomb cyclone” storm in late October and the city’s threats to demolish a storage shed under construction by a volunteer at the camp.

Michael McKinley, a civilian employee of the Sausalito Police Department, threw rocks at then-camper Holly Wild in September, according to the court filing. Wild and a witness who took video of the alleged assault attempted to file police reports about the incident, but officers Nick White and Edgar Padilla refused to take their statements. Days later, the department finally accepted a report Wild dropped off at the station. Wild no longer resides at the camp due to concerns for her safety.

After the alleged rock-throwing, the city placed McKinley on unpaid administrative leave pending a criminal investigation by the Marin County Sheriff’s Office. However, no action has been taken against the officers who repeatedly refused to take reports about the alleged assault, according to the court filing.

Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman has given the Pacific Sun three conflicting statements about investigations into the police officers’ conduct, two in the last few days.

“The City of Sausalito has also opened up internal personnel investigations, for which we will hire an independent investigator,” Hoffman wrote in a September email.

I contacted the mayor again last week to follow up on the issue and she responded the following day.

“Once the Sheriff’s Office has completed its investigation, the City—as is protocol—will then conduct its internal investigation using the services of an appropriate and qualified outside vendor,” Hoffman wrote in an email on Nov. 5.

Hoffman appears to have conflated two issues: McKinley’s alleged assault on Wild and the officers refusing to take a police report. One is a criminal investigation conducted by the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and the other is an internal investigation managed by the City of Sausalito. Both could happen simultaneously.

Even more puzzling, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office finished their investigation into McKinley in mid-October, according to Sergeant Brenton Schneider of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office. They forwarded the report to the Marin County District Attorney’s Office.

The DA’s office confirmed they received the report and are reviewing it to determine whether charges will be filed against McKinley.

I informed Hoffman that the Marin County Sheriff’s Office completed their investigation three weeks ago. Based on Hoffman’s previous statement from two days before, I assumed she would say the internal investigations into the police officers’ conduct would begin immediately. However, that is not the case.

“As regards the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, we are aware that the Office has forwarded its criminal investigation to the District Attorney’s Office for review,” Hoffman wrote in an email on Nov. 8. “The City of Sausalito will not begin an internal investigation into the allegations against the civilian employee and the police officers until we hear from the District Attorney.”

A reasonable person might conclude the mayor’s changing narrative and the delays to initiate the internal investigations indicate the officers’ conduct is not being taken seriously. Ditto for the results of the atmospheric river the Bay Area experienced in late October, which leveled the city-sanctioned homeless encampment.

Although the city received ample warning of the severity of the weather system, deemed the worst storm in a century, officials did not relocate the campers from the low-lying, flood prone Marinship Park. Instead, the city delivered “gravel, sleeping bags, hygiene kits, tarps and tents” prior to the storm, Mayor Hoffman said.

There is some dispute from the campers about what items the city provided. Regardless, the supplies were wholly inadequate for the storm’s brutality, Robbie Powelson, president of the Marin County Homeless Union, said.

Sections of a fence installed by the city to enclose the encampment fell onto tents. Almost all the tents collapsed, either from the strong winds or the fallen fence. Marinship Park predictably flooded. Personal possessions were drenched, and many of the approximately 40 campers took refuge by huddling in the bathrooms.

Sausalito Homeless Union - October 2021

Community members rescued 18 of the most vulnerable campers by paying for seven hotel rooms and hot meals. Other residents sheltered in cars or on higher ground.

No one from the city came to the camp during the brunt of the storm, which began late on Oct. 23, to check on the campers. The following evening, a Red Cross shelter was set up at a Sausalito school gym with 20 beds, which would have accommodated only half of the displaced encampment residents. By then, only six people remained at the camp and they declined the city’s offer to relocate.

As the campers returned to Marinship Park after the storm, donated items arrived from the community, not the city, encampment residents said. New tents, sleeping bags, clothing and food allowed them to rebuild the camp.

A local nonprofit group, Marin Housing For All, donated $3,000 in materials to build a storage shed to protect the camp’s essential supplies, according to the group’s co-founder Jason Sarris, who is also homeless and lives in a Novato encampment.

Volunteer Emilio Pineda began construction of the wood shed on Oct. 27. Two days later, the city posted a stop work order, which stated a building permit was needed. Pineda then applied for the permit, but the building department denied the application. The city returned to the camp on Nov. 1 with a 72-hour notice calling for removal of the structure.

Prince communicated with Arthur Friedman, Sausalito’s outside counsel from the international law firm of Sheppard Mullin, and was informed the city intended to demolish the storage shed on Nov. 5. That threat was the final straw for Prince and the camp residents.

While Prince continued to negotiate with Friedman on the storage shed issue, he also filed the motion for contempt and sanctions against the city, as well as a modification of the preliminary injunction issued in federal court by Judge Edward Chen earlier this year, which prevents Sausalito from enacting a ban on daytime camping. The campers seek the court’s permission to allow overnight camping outside of the designated Marinship area, due to the safety issues.

Prince and Friedman reached an agreement allowing the construction of the shed to continue, and the finished structure may remain at the encampment. Judge Chen, unaware the parties had resolved the dispute, issued a restraining order to prevent the city from removing and demolishing the shed. At Prince’s request, the hearing scheduled on the matter was removed from the court’s calendar.

The remaining requests made in the motion will be heard next month before Judge Chen. And another issue has also surfaced.

Standing water at Marinship Park has fecal contamination, according to a bacteriological examination by Brelje and Race Laboratories, which was commissioned by the campers. Prince maintains there is a sewer leak somewhere causing the excessive fecal count. According to Hoffman, the city checked the bathrooms and no leak exists.

There seems to be no end in sight to the discord between the city and the camp residents, even as Sausalito’s litigation costs soar. Prince says the campers will continue to take steps to ensure their safety.

“It’s a political question,” Prince said. “The city just doesn’t want homeless people organizing themselves in their own interests.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].
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