Despite public outcry, civil sidewalks measure passes for November ballot

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After more than 100 members of the public commented during Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting, the contentious civil sidewalks measure was approved for the November election ballot.

The measure — which would prohibit sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and result in a misdemeanor charge after a third violation — passed six to three, with Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Max Anderson and Jesse Arreguin voting against the measure.

In a press conference yesterday, Mayor Tom Bates said he proposed the measure due to a growing concern for members of the city’s homeless population as well as concerns from local business owners that foot traffic to their stores has been discouraged by people sitting on the sidewalk outside.

According to Bates the main purpose of the measure is to encourage the homeless to seek social services and to get vulnerable youth off the streets. Bates also referenced the sit-lie ordinance in Santa Monica, which he called a successful approach to combating homelessness and street encampments.

The measure also aims to “improve the attractiveness and welcoming nature of all commercial districts in Berkeley,” according to Bates’ recommendation, but critics say it would criminalize homelessness and increase marginalization.

“That is an obscene joke to say that threatening to arrest people is actually going to get them into services,” said Worthington after the meeting. According to Worthington, he will suggest a compromise at the July 10 meeting, when city staff return with the ballot language.

Around 70 opponents of the proposal gathered for a rally in front of the council’s chambers prior to the meeting. Many held signs, and some shared stories of current and past homelessness.

When Bates told Anderson he could not comment beyond the designated amount of time for the issue, Anderson grew angry.

“Next time I’ll bring my gavel and gavel you into silence … You are not going to treat me like one of your little punks,” he said.

UC Berkeley senior Thomas Kinzer was among those who spoke out against the measure during public comment, citing his personal experience with homelessness prior to coming to the university. A native of Santa Monica, Kinzer called that city’s sit-lie ordinance “just a perpetuation of the problem.”

“It’s not illegal to not be very good at life,” he said.

Opponents questioned the intent of the proposal, arguing that its real purpose is to target homelessness in order to clean up the downtown and attract more revenue from shoppers.

“It’s costly to conduct business in Berkeley,” said Paul Kealoha Blake, a board member of East Bay Media Center, at the meeting. “However, I don’t scapegoat marginalized youth for bad business practices. I’d like the council to come up with a better solution.”

Incoming CalServe senator Nolan Pack, criticized the council for bringing up the measure while the majority of students are away for the summer.

Pack called the decision “a slap in the face to the ASUC” and stated that the student government will oppose the measure as it has in the past.

But Maxim Schrogin, a board member for Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing — a volunteer organization that provides seasonal shelter for homeless youth in the city — said he supports the measure being voted on by citizens, and that it could potentially increase revenue for the city.

“A stronger business community (could mean) using some of these funds for the progress that we need,” said Schrogin.

Others, such as 40-year Berkeley resident Steven Donaldson, see sitting on the sidewalk as hindering business and intimidating to citizens.

“Many of our neighbors have concerns about bringing their children downtown,” he said. “You can’t take over the streets.”

If the measure is passed by voters in November, it would go into effect in March 2013.