Council Shuts Out Public in Tree-Sit Discussions

By Judith Scherr
Friday June 27, 2008 - 09:02:00 PM

While some tree-sit supporters applaud the city decision to look at suing the university over the barriers it has erected on city streets and sidewalks to keep tree-sit supporters away from Memorial Grove protesters, they also are saying that the city should include the public in discussions about the issues of the health and safety of the protesters. 

At its meeting Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council voted to place the question of the health and safety of protesters carrying out civil disobedience in the trees as an emergency item on the agenda. Relegated to the end of a lengthy agenda, the item mustered only four of the five votes needed to extend the council meeting beyond 12:30 a.m.  

Councilmember Dona Spring had made a motion to allow supporters to give tree-sitters food and water and to allow a physician to examine them, but without extension of the meeting, the motion could not be discussed. 

According to its rules, the council will automatically hear the tree-sit question at the next council meeting, which is July 8. 

“July 8 is late,” former mayor Shirley Dean, a tree-sit supporter, told the Planet Friday. “I don’t know what will happen to [the tree sitters] tomorrow. It’s a crisis situation.”  

Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Planet he was trying to muster five votes to hold an open session council meeting on Monday, the same day a closed session is scheduled. By late afternoon, he said he had secured only three of the five votes he needed to call an open meeting. 

On the agenda of the closed session, scheduled at 5 p.m. Monday in the council chambers, the council is scheduled to discuss a number of legal issues, including the lawsuit against the university over building a sports training facility adjacent to the crumbling Memorial Stadium located on an earthquake fault. Also on the agenda is the question of whether to file a new lawsuit against the university to force it to remove the barriers it placed on city streets. 

“Both of these issues have an impact on the public,” UC Berkeley student Matthew Taylor told the Planet Friday. A tree-sit supporter, Taylor was arrested by the UC police at the grove on Sunday when he crossed the police barrier on Piedmont Avenue. 

“People should have a right to be at the discussions,” Taylor said, arguing that closed door discussions should be limited to legal strategies. 

Taylor said that Spring’s council item was critical. “They need to take it up immediately. Every day of delay is problematic, when we’re not able to resupply the supporters.”  

(On Thursday, tree sitters accepted water from UC police.) 

Mayor Tom Bates told the Planet he thought it was unnecessary to hold an open council meeting before July 8.  

Along with City Manager Phil Kamlarz and City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, Bates met Tuesday with a number of university officials including Vice Chancellor Nathan Brostrom. 

“Our concern is for the safety of the people in the trees—it’s a major concern,” Bates said. “Nothing much came out of it,” 

Bates was among those who did not vote to continue the council meeting, which ended abruptly at 12:30 a.m. The council was therefore unable to discuss the emergency item in public. Bates told the Planet there was no need for an open council session before July 8.  

“I would not rule out anything,” he added. “We have to see how events unfold.” 

Linda Maio’s vote was key in the council's vote not to extend the meeting to permit a discussion of Spring’s motion.  

On Friday, Maio told the Planet why she did not vote to extend the meeting. She said she was satisfied with a report from city staff whom the city manager had sent up to the grove during the council meeting. They reported, via the city manager, that the tree-sitters said they were not in an emergency situation and would not accept food and water from university officials.  

The manager’s report, however, did not convince Councilmembers Max Anderson, Darryl Moore, Spring and Worthington. Worthington had spoken directly to the tree-sitters by phone during the council's discussion on whether to add the emergency item. Worthington reported that the tree sitters said they were in need of food and water and felt they faced a health crisis. 

Maio said at this point there would be nothing gained by holding an open session to discuss the issue. “Now there is nothing more for us to do,” she said. “We have to be able to do something other than talking about it if we go into open session.” 

The question of the barriers has been the subject of letters and discussions between the city and university. 

Saying that the court case had not yet been settled and the university would not be able to prepare for construction on the site, Kamlarz wrote the university denying it a permit to encroach on its streets and sidewalks. 

However, claiming that people occupying the trees constitute a crime scene, the university has fenced off the sidewalk and put up barricades on Piedmont Avenue, without a permit. 

Kamlarz wrote the UC Berkeley police chief: “The city considers that any injury or damage that occurs as a result of the university’s actions to control the ‘crime scene’ will be its sole responsibility. In addition to the obvious risks to pedestrians, protesters and drivers, Chief [Debra] Pryor has expressed concern that the barriers you have been placing on the sidewalk and public street may interfere with emergency access to Memorial Stadium and the International House.” 

“We certainly can demand to have our sidewalks back,” Spring told the Planet on Friday. “They’ve had them long enough.”