Public comments preceding a closed session of the Berkeley City Council Monday night were limited. Photo courtesy City of Berkeley

Expectations that many members of the Berkeley community would turn up at the public comment part of a closed session of the City Council Monday night to express their views on the recent incident concerning Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan were not met.

Fewer than 20 people showed up at City Hall, and only a handful spoke ahead of a meeting called to discuss the appointment of a new city planning director and ongoing labor negotiations for city employees, including the police.

Chief Meehan’s self-described error of judgement in sending an officer to an Oakland Tribune reporter’s home in the early hours of Friday March 9 to demand changes to a story was not on the agenda.

Jim Smith, a Berkeley property owner and  community organizer who is on the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Property Association, spoke of his strong, 35-year-long support for the Berkeley Police Department and his hope that Chief Meehan would remain in his post.

“This has become a firestorm and I hope the city gets behind this. We have a great police chief and a great police department. It has become a blame game,” he said.

Speaking to Berkeleyside after the short public comment segment, Smith said: “It was a misstep to send an officer to Doug Oakley’s home. But it was an honest, innocent mistake. It’s important now that the rank-and-file police know that the city and citizens support them. I’ve worked with five police chiefs in Berkeley and there has always been strong support for the police here.”

In contrast, Isabelle Gaston, who described herself as living in District 6, told the City Council she thought the police chief should step down.

“I’m not going to mince words… What [Chief] Meehan did was inexcusable and illegal. Meehan violated the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution — the right of Mr Oakley to be secure in [his] home without intrusion by law enforcement,” she said. “What happened last Thursday night at Mr Oakley’s house was Gestapo — getting a knock in the middle of the night.”

Zelda Bronstein asked why Mayor Tom Bates had made no statement since the news broke of Chief Meehan’s actions.

A little later in the session, Mayor Bates said he stood by Interim City Manager’s statement on the incident.

In a statement issued on March 10, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel said she understood the depth of response to the incident, but that the chief had acknowledged his lapse in judgment and “assured me that nothing like this will happen again.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said it would be dangerous legal territory for councilmembers to speak publicly on the Meehan matter. “The City Charter gives all powers over hiring, firing and disciplining to the City Manager,” he said. “If a councilmember expressed an opinion it could lead to a lawsuit.”

On the subject of a new city planning director, the council was asked why information had been published, notably on Berkeleyside, about an appointment without due public proces. Answering off-brief, Mayor Bates said no appointment had yet been made. He said he had met the mooted candidate, Eric Angstadt, currently Oakland’s deputy director of planning and zoning, briefly in Oakland recently, but had not discussed the position.

Worthington added that the closed meeting would not include a vote to determine the appointment. “We are not hiring anyone tonight. The public will see the name and we will vote in public.”

Questions remain about Berkeley police chief’s actions [03.11.12]
At 12:45 am police chief demands reporter make changes [03.10.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...