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Commission Deems Public Commons Initiative Too Vague for Comment

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 13, 2007

Members of the Homeless Commission slammed Mayor Tom Bates’ Public Commons for Everyone initiative as “mean spirited,” “punitive,” “vindictive,” and too vague to address effectively. 

“We’re concerned about him running our constituents out of town,” said Commissioner Kokavulu Lumukanda, speaking at the commission’s Wednesday evening meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center. 

Bates’ proposal is strongly supported by members of the business community, who came to the March 13 City Council meeting to say its implementation would help make commercial districts more attractive to shoppers by getting people with “problematic behavior” off of the city’s commercial corridors, through a combination of laws and services. 

Some of the proposed regulations were spelled out in the mayor’s initiative and the city manager’s work plan, but most of the recommendations were stated in a general way, such as the manager’s direction to staff to “develop a proposal for new diversion services.” 

“We have so little information—we don’t understand how this will help people,” said Commissioner Betsy Strode. 

“The intent is vague—it will divide and polarize people,” added Commissioner Ken Moshesh. 

The commission agreed unanimously to ask the mayor to address a joint meeting of the Homeless, Human Welfare and Mental Health commissions to answer questions on the proposal. It also recommended that the council delay its scheduled May 8 vote on the proposal until it can be more clearly articulated and until it is clear that money for services is available. The commission also asked that it be regularly consulted. Commissioners agreed they would not support the proposal until they receive more information. 

Addressing the proposal that would presumably have police cite individuals and then get them into services, such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, Commissioner Paula Hollowell said her concern was that under the new laws people would get fined, then not be able to pay the fine. She said she did not understand how the initiative would move an individual from the point of receiving a citation to accessing services. 

Jennifer Vasquez, secretary to the commission, defended the proposal’s inexact language. “It’s vague because the city manager’s staff did not have a lot of time,” she said, noting the proposal had come to the council March 13 and is slated to return there May 8—perhaps for action. The mayor had asked for an evaluation of the proposal from the Homeless, Mental Health and Human Welfare commissions for the May 8 meeting. 

Reached by telephone on Thursday, Assistant City Manager Jim Hynes said he understood the commission’s reaction to the vagueness of the proposal. “I don’t blame them. It is vague,” he said. “They gave us pretty vague directions about the diversion we’re talking about.”  

He added, however, that if council decides to proceed with the initiative on May 8, staff will ask in the June budget process for an employee to work on the plan. As for paying for new services, that might not happen until the mid-year or next year’s budget, he said. 

While the proposal speaks in vague terms about services, commissioners said they have very clear ideas about what services are needed: housing, drug and alcohol treatment and a drop-in center, topped their list. 

“Services need to be in place first,” Strode said. 

Attorney Osha Neumann, who often defends homeless and indigent people, was in the audience and blasted the proposal as a “thinly disguised carrot and stick” approach that was, in reality “all stick.” 

But Commissioner Joe Halperin said it is too early to dismiss the proposal. “It might provide meaningful services,” he said, advocating for housing. 

Among regulations detailed in the city manager’s report are: adoption of “a new law to allow for citations specifically for public urination and defecation,” and revision of “traffic regulations governing personal possessions in the public right of way,”  

“I can’t see punishing people for sitting on the street or for urinating where there are no public bathrooms,” said Annemarie Heineman, vice-chair of the commission. 

“I understand the concerns about loud and aggressive people on the streets,” Heineman added, “But it sounds like we have laws to penalize behavior like that.” 

The city manager’s work plan says new services will be addressed in a second phase by December as well as “changes to rules regarding sitting/lying on sidewalk[s]….” It also calls for hiring a new employee to work on the plan. 

In support of the proposal, Vasquez argued that it is “not targeting homeless people; it’s targeting problematic behavior.” 

Some commissioners and members of the public attending the meeting, however, disagreed strongly.  

“To say it’s not aimed at the homeless—that’s all it’s aimed at,” responded Dan McMullen, an advocate for the homeless and a former homeless person. 

Calls to the mayor were not returned by deadline. 



The Mental Health Commission will discuss the initiative at its all-day Saturday meeting at a 3 p.m. session, at Berkeley City College, 2050 Center St., Room 451A.