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Public Commons Plan Draws Fire, Praise

By Judith Scherr
Friday May 11, 2007

A weary mayor and seven councilmembers—with Councilmember Betty Olds having gone home—and more than two dozen members of the public waited in the council chambers past midnight Tuesday to address the mayor’s controversial Public Commons for Everyone initia-tive, a proposal aimed at curbing inappropriate behavior in shopping areas by intensifying law enforcement in an initial phase and adding social services later as funding will allow. 

No decision on the proposal was made however. Mayor Tom Bates delayed a vote, saying he would present additional information at the council’s May 22 meeting. 

Before the council was a staff report that would have required councilmembers to vote on whether they wanted the staff to write ordinances addressing any or all of the proposals the mayor had put forward.  

These are:  

• Strengthening prohibitions against lying on the sidewalk, making them citywide rather than just in the Telegraph-Shattuck avenues areas as they now are. The measure could include allowing police officers discretion in giving warnings to offenders before citing them;  

• Making urination/defecation in public a citable offense; 

• Broadening smoking restrictions, making smoking illegal in most parts of commercial districts; and 

• Increasing enforcement of existing laws such as prohibitions against bike riding on sidewalks, possessing a bicycle without proper registration, tying dogs to parking meters and more. 

When the remaining public—most of the homeless and marginally housed had left by midnight—was invited to queue up for comment, Downtown Business Association President Mark McLeod lauded the proposal. “Improved [street] behavior is going to equal more sales for our merchants,” he said. “More sales means more taxes. More taxes, more services.” 

But attorney and artist Osha Neumann slammed the proposal. “There are no services provided. It’s about new laws,” he told the council. 

Neumann distributed copies of a poster he had made to the council with an apparently homeless person seated on the sidewalk and a question inscribed at the bottom: “Is this a crime?”  

There are already laws on the books criminalizing the homeless, Neumann said, asking for what he called a “real” discussion on the issues. 

Jake Gelender of Copwatch also spoke against the initiative, condemning the further criminalization of petty infractions.  

“People aren’t not enjoying Telegraph because people are going around with unregistered bikes,” he said. “That is to target a population that is already over-targeted by police.” 

It’s not about a simple citation when one is talking about people with no address, no phone and no income, he said. “It’s about locking people up and nothing else.”  

In his comments the mayor added information to the staff report, saying that he was talking to city staff about keeping various bathrooms under city control open at all times: those at Civic Center, and at the Sather Gate and Center Street garages. He also said he would talk to UC Berkeley officials about keeping the People’s Park bathroom open. 

He said he also wanted to investigate installation of self-cleaning public toilets, such as are in use in San Francisco. 

Over the last few weeks, the initiative had been strongly criticized by the Homeless and Human Welfare commissions as well as service providers for its lack of services. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington noted at the meeting that funding has been “slashed for a dozen homeless groups” when services are critical. 

But Bates defended the proposal as a way to “open a dialogue in the community” on the question of unacceptable street behavior. While many have said the measure targets homeless people, the mayor said it does not. Its enforcement would respect everyone’s rights, he said. 

“I want to curb inappropriate street behavior wherever that is, whether it is adults or young people harassing passersby, or a small group of high school students wreaking havoc at lunch or after school, for people with serious mental illness problems, for people high on drugs or conducting unlawful activities,” he said, bringing the question of targeting Berkeley High students into the mix. 

The mayor underscored that the measure is not simply punitive and would eventually include services. “This is not one shot,” he said. “It is a broad picture.”  

Along those lines, Bates called for more seating in public areas so that people do not have to sit on the sidewalk. He also said he wanted to find a way to encourage people to give donations to agencies that serve the homeless, rather than directly to panhandlers “who may or may not use it for purposes you’d want them to use it for.”  

He said he’d also like to initiate a program of peer outreach, where there would be an initial response to inappropriate street behavior by trained peers. And he supports community policing and diversion programs. 

To pay for additional programs he said he would support a January 2008 increase in street parking fees, raising them to $1.50 per hour. This would generate $2 million, he said.  

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli spoke out in favor of the initiative—and had sent emails to constituents calling on them to come to the council meeting in its support.  

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak also supported the proposal and told the council and public a story about a time a year or so ago when he and his wife witnessed an incident in which a woman parked her car and went to an ATM machine nearby. In the few minutes she was there, an individual urinated on the grill of her car, he said. 

“I bet she didn’t come back to Berkeley,” Wozniak concluded.