Late at night on July 10, Mayor Tom Bates faced a tough decision. The Berkeley City Council meeting, at the time focused on placing the contentious “sit-lie” measure on the November ballot, was being derailed by an unruly crowd of the measure’s detractors, who sang loudly in protest. Bates needed to move the meeting forward, and there were several options from which to choose.
He made the right call when he decided to recess. Under the circumstances, it was the most appropriate choice. Bates could have theoretically brought in law enforcement or let the situation continue to escalate — neither of which would have alleviated the tension effectively.
What happened next is not as clear. After the council returned from its recess, it voted to place the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, despite objections that not everyone had been allowed to speak on the action.Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the council alleging that it violated both its own procedures and a state law during the course of the meeting.
Specifically in regard to the state Brown Act — which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in government meetings — the ACLU cites concern about the recess, stating in the letter that “a majority of the Council may have discussed the matter under consideration” during that time. If council members inappropriately discussed business, then those who violated the public trust should be held accountable. As public officials familiar with the act, they should know better than to discuss agenda items behind closed doors.
To opponents, the measure, that would prohibit sitting on city sidewalks in commercial areas from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is so absurd that it shouldn’t even be put up for a vote. But completely eclipsing other points of view and preventing the council from conducting its business was not the right way to get their message across.
Moreover, though many are understandably outraged at placing restrictions on sitting, Measure S deserves to be on the ballot. If the public doesn’t make a final call on the measure, then it will likely continue to resurface in the future. The debate over a “sit-lie” ordinance must be put to rest.
Because of the rushed vote and alleged Brown Act violation, the ACLU asked the council to revisit the issue at another meeting. But while such a violation, if true, would be reprehensible, it is not significant enough to revisit placing Measure S on the ballot.
Furthermore, allowing more people to speak to the council would likely do nothing to prevent the measure from reaching the ballot. Yes, this is an extremely divisive issue, so members of the public would understandably want to make their voices heard. However, numerous public commenters were given the opportunity to address the council at that meeting. And isn’t a democratic decision from Berkeley residents a better alternative to the council unilaterally deciding to impose a “sit-lie” ordinance?
Moving forward, public debate should focus on the issue at hand, not the bureaucracy associated with it. Berkeley voters will determine the fate of Measure S. That should not change.