Updated: What the hell is going on at Berkeley City Hall today?

Becky O'Malley
Friday December 02, 2016 - 02:26:00 PM

I was just downtown in a car, something I try to avoid, stopped in a loading zone waiting to drop off something for a friend, and Carol Denney’s emailed story about the homeless campers being busted on this cold December morning showed up on my phone.


Last night the new mayor told me confidently that he and the city manager had reached a meeting of the minds: no more evictions until they got things figured out. But Carol’s got it right—evidently he, and perhaps also the newish City Manager, are not in charge. I stopped to talk to the activists I know, who were standing around on the corner of Center and Milvia, and I’ve been calling the Mayor’s office since I got home, but all I get is voice mail. To add insult to injury, the new guys haven’t even re-recorded their messages, so it sounds like Tom Bates is still in charge.

The activists had two names for those in charge of the raid this morning: Greg Daniel, whose job used to be code enforcement, and Jim Hynes, Assist. City Manager. They said that about 20 cops were involved.

I hate to sound like an angry taxpayer, but how much in wages did this little escapade cost the city of Berkeley? And who the hell authorized it? Is city staff just giving the finger to the new mayor? Heads should roll, but they probably won't.

Since I can’t get anyone on the phone, I guess I’ll have to go down there to see if anyone’s around. I’m getting too old for this.

UPDATE, Friday afternoon: So I went to Berkeley City Hall at 3:30 today, and—SURPRISE!—neither the City-Manager-in-Chief nor her two deputies were there. The receptionist on the 5th floor suggested hopefully that they might be at an off-site meeting, but really folks, it is Friday afternoon, isn’t it? I did run into Councilmember Kriss Worthington, and (as usual the adult in the room) he reminded me that the Mayor and Councilmembers can’t legally tell the city employees what to do. The Council can pass laws, but when the laws are on the books the staff chooses whether to enforce them. It looks like a few laws need to be rethought, which is what the new mayor is promising to undertake on December 13. Not answered: why did the Mayor think he had a deal with the Manager but she doesn’t seem to agree? Maybe she’ll be back in the office on Monday so I can ask her. 

UPDATE #2, Saturday morning: The Planet has received a copy of a memo that the City Manager sent on Friday to the mayor, the city council, and an assortment of city officials, detailing reasons for the raid on the homeless encampment. 

In brief, it seems that (1) someone has been smearing feces, possibly human though not tested to be such, on the doors to city buildings and within a restroom at City Hall. Let’s take this one, obviously disgusting, first. This happened while homeless activists were camped outside the building, but the Berkeley Police Department has not identified the offender, though it’s happened several times. It would seem that the obvious solution would be to install a police officer or at least a video camera to monitor the doors and catch the person responsible, but for some reason no one has made this happen. Also, leaving feces means leaving DNA evidence, which should make it easier to get a conviction if a suspect is spotted in the act. Instead, someone decided that raiding the camp with many police officers and seizing the possessions of those involved was the answer.  

Folks, there are crazies all over the place these days, and it’s not actually right to punish one whole group for the actions of a single disturbed individual who might or might not even be part of it. It reminds me of the grade school teacher who keeps the whole class in detention because someone’s hijacked the eraser. Or maybe it’s like the joke about the person who’s dropped his car keys on the way into the house. His wife asks him why he keeps searching under the lamp post instead of also looking on the sidewalk and in the front yard. Punch line: because it’s easier to see under the streetlight.  

No, no, no. Catch the crazy, don’t punish everyone. Cheaper, and more effective. 

And also (2) someone has chalked messages relating to suicide on sidewalks near City Hall and also near Berkeley High. This has caused concern among mental health workers associated with the high school who feel that it might encourage suicidal action among the students. I’m told by someone I trust that the leaders of the campers know who’s done this, not even one of their number, and have talked him out of it. But in any event: Time, Place and Manner. Cases explaining the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have consistently told us that only those aspects of expression may be regulated by government, not the content of the speech. The city might try to forbid chalking on sidewalks for everyone, but can’t regulate what one chalker says if others are allowed to chalk other things. The fact mentioned by the manager that someone, possibly a homeless person, used a racial epithet against a city employee is also distressing, but that's also protected expression under the First Amendment.  

And of course, rousting the campers won’t solve this problem, vexing though it might be. I do wonder if the lurid media too many highschoolers injest these days might be more harmful than chalk on the sidewalk. Again, we're looking for the keys under the streetlight because it’s easier. 

Memo to city officials: There are still a lot of people sleeping outside, and it's getting colder. It's better to spend your time working on real solutions than chasing the activists all over town. If there really are bad actors in their number, though that's not proven, what better place for them to hang out than right down the block from the police station?