Unable to agree on a compromise Tuesday, the City Council took no direct action on a recommendation from the Commission on Disability to change one of the Berkeley Free Folk Festival venues because of poor disabled accessibility.
Instead, the council referred the matter to the city manager, who will develop an accessibility policy for all city-sponsored events. The council approved the referral by a vote of 7-1-1 with Councilmember Betty Olds voting in opposition and Councilmember Miriam Hawley abstaining.
“It seems that the Berkeley Free Folk Festival was singled out from other city-sponsored events and that’s not good for anybody,” Councilmember Linda Maio said. “It’s better having a policy that is applied to everybody across the board.”
The City Council does not have the authority to cancel or move the festival but it could have withdrawn its annual contribution of $3,000. It did not do so, however.
The city manager will develop an accessibility policy for other city-sponsored events such as the Juneteenth, Earth Day and Cinco de Mayo festivals.
The Commission on Disability unanimously approved a recommendation on Sept. 12 asking the council to move the folk festival, which is being held on Nov. 17 and 18, from the Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center on San Pablo Avenue. According to commissioners, Ashkenaz has poor accessibility at its entrance and bathrooms and no disabled access to the stage.
The festival is also being held at the Freight and Salvage on Addison Street.
The council first approved the referral to the city manager and then attempted to take specific action on the Berkeley Free Festival.
“I am really concerned about this,” Mayor Shirley Dean said. “This has been a long-standing dispute that needs to be settled.”
The festival, which began in 1996, was moved once before from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall for similar accessibility problems.
In an attempt to find some resolution to the issue, Commissioner on Disability Marissa Shaw presented the council with a compromise that would allow the festival to go ahead as planned this year, but require it be held in a larger, more accessible venue, such as a school auditorium next year.
But a series of miscommunications and disagreements resulted in the council taking no further action on the folk festival.
The compromise was first moved by Hawley but moments later she removed the motion because there was a dispute about whether an amendment by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, which would have included funding for a sound system, had been accepted.
Worthington then made two more motions requiring a new venue for the folk festival next year and funding for a sound system, but both failed.
“I’m really dismayed and quite shocked the council did not approve the compromise,” Shaw said. “We knew there were not enough council votes to move the festival this year and that’s why we offered the compromise.”
Maio said just prior to voting she couldn’t support the compromise.
“This is too hastily done,” she said. “We have a year to work out something that is well-worded. I have a problem with the process.”
Festival Director Suzy Thompson said Wednesday that “to move the festival to a larger and institutional setting like a school would alter the festival’s nature.
“But we’re waiting until after this year’s festival to discuss any changes.”
Worthington, who helped develop the festival six years ago, said on Wednesday that the Commission on Disability actually made progress on Tuesday even though the council did not approve its recommendation or compromise.
“Twice in recent months motions to move the folk festival have been withdrawn at the mere suggestion of requiring it be moved to a more accessible venue,” he said. “Last night, even though the council couldn’t agree, there was a clear willingness to approve a recommendation to move the festival (next year).”
Worthington said the community got a clear message that the festival should be moved and he was sure it would not be held at Ashkenaz next year. “I understand the commission is frustrated but they deserve a great deal of praise for their persistence.”