Late Tuesday evening and into Wednesday morning, some members of Berkeley City Council skirted shouting and singing from protesting residents to approve the controversial civil sidewalks measure for the local November ballot.
Mayor Tom Bates’ decision to push forward with the vote for the Commercial Sidewalks Ballot Measure despite the protest at the meeting has brought criticism from both council members and residents, who allege that Bates did not follow correct due process rules.
Opponents have argued that the measure — which would prohibit sitting on commercial sidewalks between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. — unfairly targets Berkeley’s street population without addressing the real issues behind homelessness. Others who advocate for the measure say it will improve business for shop owners in areas where sitting on sidewalks outside of stores is prevalent. If approved by voters in November, the measure would go into effect July 1, 2013.
“I feel that the vote was illegal and out of order,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “Rather than actually asking people to stop singing and dealing with the protest, the mayor just ran the proposal through after midnight without any discussion.”
According to Arreguin, Bates’ action could be considered a violation of California’s Brown Act — which requires public participation during local government meetings, such as a comment period prior to voting on an issue — because members of the public were denied their right to speak.
However, according to Bates, more than 80 people had already spoken during the public comment section when the meeting was interrupted by demonstrators singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” before the hearing was finished. Councilmember Kriss Worthington also got up from his seat and joined hands with the singing crowd.
In the end, when Bates called for the vote, Councilmember Max Anderson, Arreguin and Worthington were all recorded as abstaining votes. City Clerk Mark Numainville said the vote on the measure was a valid action.
“It’s like the pot calling the kettle black,” Bates said. “They orchestrated and criticized us for something they did … It’s important in democracy to have order, but they prevented that.”
Councilmember Linda Maio, who voted in favor of the measure, said in an email she understood the sentiment of demonstrators but believes the measure will help improve the quality of life for all residents in the city. According to Maio, the city of Berkeley will spend almost $3 million to provide services for the homeless.
“Whether or not the measure gets onto the ballot, the problem has gotten people’s attention … (but) preventing people from speaking and shouting them down was not behavior anyone should be proud of,” Maio said in an email.
Bates said he had considered alternative actions to address the issue, including vacating the chambers, but wanted to avoid a confrontation. He said he also believed that postponing the discussion would likely result in the same reaction at the next meeting.
“Under the circumstances that were possible, the only appropriate thing was to do was what we did,” Bates said. “I don’t understand what they’re so afraid of. Let the people vote. The people should decide this issue.”
An alternate proposal by Arreguin, the Compassionate Sidewalks Plan — which recommends City Manager Christine Daniel convene a group of representatives to evaluate the current homeless situation in the city and what laws could be expanded to address it — was not considered.
“We shouldn’t sell ourselves short by simply kicking the can down the sidewalk, while at the same time kicking homeless veterans, youth aging out of foster care, families and people who are victims of our economy off of our streets,” Arreguin said. “That is not Berkeley at its best.”
According to Bates, the ballot measure will be brought back for two more readings, one of which will take place next Tuesday, when the issue may be discussed again.
“This was the worst council meeting I’ve ever seen,” Bates said.
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