Editorial: Public Bathrooms for Every Body Initiative

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday October 02, 2007

Here’s a quick and simple suggestion: Let’s just change the name to the “Public Bathrooms for Every Body Initiative.” As we predicted in this very space in the very last issue, that’s all it’s really about in the end (no rude pun intended). On Saturday, a lovely autumn day, tirely too many of the usual suspects were entombed in the North Berkeley Senior Center to talk about the politicians’ latest proposal to curry favor with some elements of what they perceive to be Berkeley by cracking down on undesirable street behavior. All agreed that urination and defecation in all the wrong places is undesirable. 

Acting Mayor Kriss Worthington opened for the electeds. Laurie Capitelli was there—stayed in the audience for almost the whole event, didn’t say anything. Darryl Moore came in late, but stayed to the end. Linda Maio dropped in at the end with a cute kid, presumably a grandchild, in tow. The other councilmembers were noticeably absent, including the mayor, who’s in England, where they have plenty of well-located public conveniences, there called Public Toilets, which would sound vulgar here. 

The meeting wasn’t a public hearing in the usual sense. It was billed as a “town hall meeting,” presumably because it wasn’t held in the town hall like real public hearings are. This is consistent with the Orwellian tone of the whole endeavor. 

Attendees, or should we call them guests, sat in a circle or at tables, as if they were at dinner. Former city employee Taj Johns played Mother, warning them to speak one at a time and not to interrupt each other.  

The featured presenter was Lauren Lempert, the consultant hired with the $50,000 the council has appropriated to discuss the topic. Lempert did her best to frame the issue with pre-composed PowerPoint slides, but was much hampered by the fact that her projector and the screen provided weren’t quite compatible and the words leaked out over the edges. And the guests weren’t much help. A couple of them had the nerve to ask for a copy of the full text of the proposed action instead of just a copy of Lempert’s PowerPoint slides. 

This just in: PowerPoint is the new butcher paper. Contrary to my prediction, butcher paper tablets and markers are OUT. PowerPoint transcription is IN. Or at least I think it’s PowerPoint, but it’s been at least 10 years since I departed the world of high-tech sales pitches so I might not know the lingo any more. I still do recognize a sales pitch when I see one, however. 

Whatever the device was, it allowed Ms. Lempert (JD,MPH) to transcribe the oral remarks of the speakers in real time. They were (mostly) projected on the hard-to-read screen, and are possibly preserved somewhere in cyberspace for future contemplation. Not surprisingly, her typing wasn’t always 100 percent accurate—mine wouldn’t be either under the circumstances. I went through a period of trying to take notes as a reporter on a portable computer, and I discovered that it’s a barrier to intelligent listening.  

And using such a well-educated and presumably well-paid person as a stenographer is foolish. It would have been much better to tape the comments and transcribe them later if desired.  

The whole thing was a colossal waste of public money and everyone’s time. I spotted at least four other people among the 40 or so there that I’d normally see at the Farmers’ Market at that time of a Saturday, and it’s time better spent.  

On the other hand, part of the pleasure of going to the market is socializing, and the gathering functioned as a cheery reunion for many of us who struggled unsuccessfully to prevent the last round of poor laws from being passed. (A federal judge threw them out, thank goodness.) One companera corrected my memory about how long ago it was: It’s been 13 years, not just eight, since Bates and company tried this the first time.  

Many of us are a good bit greyer than we were then, as is Mayor Bates, but we’re still in good voice. I didn’t keep count, but my rough estimate is that there were about 40 speakers. About 35 of them were worried about what mischief they thought might be in the works. Most of these said, as I predicted, that more funding is needed for remedial services for the badly-behaved. 

Two or three tactful representatives of the Downtown Berkeley Association did their best to make nice in an unsympathetic crowd. The new director of the Chamber of Commerce was up-beat. Roland Peterson, who works for some Telegraph business association, said things were better there now.  

Only one person spoke as a private citizen. She said her parents used to go downtown to sit on benches, but now most of the benches had been taken away because street people used them too much. She wanted more benches with fewer street people on them. 

Everyone, without exception, thought more bathrooms were needed. One very brave young mother from the hills admitted that she has a chronic urinary problem, and has occasionally been forced to pee in the bushes when she couldn’t make it to a bathroom. 

Bottom line (again, no rude pun intended): A lot of money and time would be saved if the City Council could see its way clear to providing more public bathrooms in commercial areas in the near future. The $50,000 already spent on the consultant would have paid for quite a few months of PortaPotty rentals. Is there a courageous councilmember who would propose putting a Public Bathrooms For Every Body Initiative on the agenda right now? Once there are enough bathrooms, we can talk about how to persuade everyone to use them.