Merchants, community members protest civil sidewalks measure

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Berkeley community members and merchants spoke out against the city’s civil sidewalks measure at the Berkeley City Council’s Agenda Committee meeting Monday before the Berkeley City Council decides Tuesday whether or not to place it on the November ballot.

About 20 people showed up at the meeting at City Hall to tell city council members why they opposed the measure and to encourage other residents to continue to place pressure on the city. The event was planned in response to the council’s June 12 decision to draft language placing the measure on the November election ballot.

According to the recommendation, the measure — which would prohibit sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and result in a misdemeanor after a third violation — aims to improve the cleanliness and accessibility of sidewalks in the city’s commercial areas.

However, community members and several business owners at the meeting said the measure deliberately criminalizes the homeless, diverts police attention from more significant crimes and has been ineffective in other cities.

“It is a crime to attack the homeless and poor because the economy is so low. It could happen to anybody,” said Berkeley resident Lori Kossowsky. “If this gets on the ballot, a lot of other things won’t pass that are needed … I have never been bothered by (the homeless).”

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who also opposes the measure, released an alternative Tuesday before the meeting.  The Compassionate Sidewalks plan promotes bringing various city groups together to talk about the issue of homelessness and review what existing city laws and programs can be expanded to improve the situation.

“We shouldn’t waste money punting a needlessly divisive issue to the voters when we can come together and adopt a proposal now that will help those in need and make our sidewalks accessible to everyone,” Arreguin said in the release.

At the meeting, many demonstrators held signs that read “I am a Berkeley voter. I stand up for my right to sit down.” Others sang at the agenda meeting to express their feelings against the measure. Among the people attending the event were UC Berkeley students Ana Reyes and Nolan Pack, an incoming CalSERVE senator.

While speaking at the meeting, Pack referred to a letter sent to Mayor Tom Bates and City Council members by the ASUC executive officers expressing their opposition to the measure.

“The city of Berkeley has grown to be a very vibrant and unique community that is shaped by its community members,” the letter reads. “Placing the sit-lie ordinance on the ballot would be a detriment to our city as it unfairly targets certain areas, would hinder recent progress and does not address the root of the problem.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who spoke to the gathered community members said the measure is “immoral, impractical and extremely expensive.”

Worthington said there are other alternatives to the measure that are not being enforced, mentioning an ordinance that prohibits people from piling bags and garbage on city sidewalks.

“I think the public is more offended by 20 to 30 (other) things than somebody just sitting on the sidewalk …” Worthington said. “You can make it cleaner and neater without criminalizing the person.”

The community members at the meeting also said they planned to gather around 200 people to sing and rally at 5 p.m. before the Tuesday’s City Council meeting.