City Council approves revised median constraints

A man peppers on the Coors median near Irving in 2018. Albuquerque City Council on Monday approved a revised pedestrian protection ordinance proposed by Mayor Tim Keller’s administration. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

An Albuquerque ordinance once ruled unconstitutional has a new look and City Council support.

Mayor Tim Keller’s rewrite of the old “pedestrian safety ordinance” – which would have severely restricted begging but was struck down by a federal judge – acquitted the council by a vote of 7-2 on Monday.

The latest incarnation drops much of the language from the last version and targets activity in specific medians and lanes.

As approved by the council, the regulation specifically prohibits occupying medians without at least 4 feet of flat surface on roads where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour or faster. It also prohibits people from standing or walking in the lanes of roads or freeway on- and off-ramps unless crossing legally.

Prosecutor Lauren Keefe said the new version was developed to address various concerns raised by the US Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

“The court’s main concern was whether the draft ordinance would burden more speech than necessary, meaning it would take away more places for people to stand and express themselves than needed to keep people safe,” he said Keefe on Monday to the council.

A city analysis found that the ordinance would affect just over 17% of linear feet of medians on higher-speed major thoroughfares in Albuquerque.

Councilor Isaac Benton said that about 83% remains for constitutionally protected speech and that he supported the regulation because he believed it would improve safety.

Although the ordinance only lists one case in which a person sitting in a narrow median in Albuquerque was hit by a vehicle and killed, Benton said he was also concerned about people who might have their feet stuck over the curb sit in the median.

“It’s not just death — there’s also many, many possibilities for serious injury,” said Benton, who co-sponsored the bill with Brook Bassan at the request of the Keller administration.

Pat Davis, Renee Grout, Trudy Jones, Dan Lewis and Louie Sanchez supported the sponsors.

Tammy Fiebelkorn and Klarissa Peña voted against.

Peña raised concerns about enforcement, noting that the city already lacks enough staff to focus on other ordinances.

Fiebelkorn said the regulation’s purpose seemed “trivial” given the scope of the resulting restrictions, noting it will take away some of the most sought-after protest points.

“I’ve been an activist for 44 years,” she said. “When I’m protesting something or holding up a political sign, it matters where you are. I don’t want a political sign three blocks from where I wanted it to be.”

Fiebelkorn joined Bassan to pass an amendment that would ensure law enforcement agencies warn violators before proceeding with subpoenas or arrests.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico had no comment Monday, according to a spokesman.

The ACLU had sued the city over the original 2017 pedestrian protection ordinance, representing several plaintiffs including a homeless woman who routinely used the medians to solicit donations and people distributing donations from their vehicles.

US District Court Judge Robert Brack ruled against the city in the case, finding that the ordinance violated the protections of free speech. It was “not narrowly tailored to meet the city’s interest in reducing pedestrian-vehicle conflict,” Brack wrote.

The city’s 2017 Pedestrian Protection Ordinance was more restrictive, making it illegal to occupy certain medians and stand on freeway entrances and exits. It also banned “any physical interaction or exchange” between pedestrians and vehicle occupants while the vehicle was in a lane.

The city council made minor changes to the ordinance in 2019, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Brack’s verdict in 2021.