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Commons Initiative Hearing on Saturday

By Judith Scherr
Friday September 28, 2007

Proposed laws and services aimed at people exhibiting “inappropriate street behavior” make up the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, to be discussed at a forum Saturday. 

The initiative, credited to Mayor Tom Bates, is lauded by some as a program to make commercial areas more appealing to shoppers, but is condemned by others as criminalization of the poor and homeless. 

Both views will likely be aired at Saturday’s Public Com-mons for Everyone Initiative Forum, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. 

Those who thought the forum would be an opportunity for dialogue with the mayor may be disappointed, as he is out of the country. Instead, the gathering will be hosted by Lauren Lempert, a consultant hired on a $50,000, six-month contract to seek input from the community on the initiative and to transform the loose set of proposals into laws and services the City Council can address. 

Forum participants will be welcomed by Kriss Worthing-ton, acting mayor while Bates is away, who argues that there are already laws in place to address inappropriate street behavior. 

He told the Daily Planet on Thursday that he likes the aspect of the initiative that proposes service-oriented solutions. “I will say that the No. 1 priority is: how can we help the homeless and poor people,” he said, adding: “If we do a really good job of getting people into safe and affordable housing, there will be less need for punitive measures.” 

Bates’ original proposal included laws prohibiting lengthy sitting on sidewalks, but it’s no longer in the proposal. “We are not touching that,” Lempert said. 

Some of the proposals that may be written into the initiative include: 

• Eliminating the provision in the law that allows the police to give several warnings before citing people for lying on the street.  

• Strictly enforcing laws governing removal of dog feces, hitching animals to fixed objects, littering, public consumption of alcohol, yelling and shouting, restricting use of the sidewalk and parking a bicycle against a window or on a parking meter. 

• Restricting smoking in public areas. 

• Increasing the fines for public urination and defecation. 

Lempert said she hopes to dispel the misconception in the public’s mind that the new laws would target the homeless. “This is not selective enforcement,” she said, noting that she’s “had a lot of conversations with Chief [Doug] Hambleton. He understands the goals,” she said. “We want to uphold everyone’s civil rights, which includes people on the streets and people who want to go shopping or to the Berkeley Rep.” 

While there are punitive aspects to the proposal, supporters point to the services the initiative proposes. 

These services, however, are dependent on funding. Bates has proposed adding parking meters and raising parking meter fees.  

Funds may be used to extend open hours for public bathrooms and add bathroom facilities, Lempert said, underscoring, “We would not do this [ticket people for defecating and urinating] until there were enough public bathrooms in place.”  

Downtown Merchants Association Executive Director Deborah Badhia says her organization supports the proposal and will support the meter fee hike. Compared to neighboring cities, Berkeley’s rates are “very reasonable,” she told the Daily Planet on Thursday. 

She suggested that the new funds could pay for enhanced services by the city’s Mobile Crisis Team, which interacts with people who are misbehaving on the street and works with the police, calling in uniformed officers only when team members believe public safety is at issue. 

The mayor has suggested, as part of the package, that when people are arrested on some of these charges, which are sometimes called “quality of life” offenses, that they be given a choice between paying a fine or taking advantage of an alcohol/drug recovery program.  

Critics, however, have suggested that people who hitch their dogs to parking meters or smoke in the “public commons” may not benefit from a program that targets drug abusers. Others have suggested that 12-step programs might not be appropriate for people who do not believe in a Higher Power. 

Lempert said she’s looking at a number of service providers, noting that in addition to speaking to Davida Cody of Options Recovery Services (popular with many members of the City Council) she’s talked to Bonita House, which serves people diagnosed with mental illness, and Lifelong Medical Care. “We have not selected one provider over another,” she said. 

Other possible services are adding time to when the youth shelter is open. It’s currently funded to stay open only in the winter months.  

And “We’re hoping to have more peer-based outreach teams,” Lempert said. 

Saturday’s meeting will consist of the welcome by Worthington, a short presentation by city staff, then comment by the public. After an initial opportunity to speak before the large group, public comment will be held in small break-out groups, Lempert said. “That eliminates long lines at the microphone,” she said.  

Worthington, however, noted that break-out groups are sometimes used as a “divide and conquer” mechanism, preventing people from hearing directly from others.  

“Cross-fertilization—hearing different opinions—is quite valuable,” he said.