City Councilmember Kriss Worthington left the dais to join the audience to sing a song protesting the sitting ban. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

While three councilmembers were singing protest songs with the audience, the Berkeley City Council abruptly voted 6-0-3 early Wednesday morning to place a contentious sitting ban on the November ballot – a move that was immediately challenged as illegal by its opponents.

The three councilmembers who abstained from voting are planning to challenge the legality of the vote because it was held before the council had debated the measure and before all public speakers had commented.

“I was stunned,” said Councilmember Max Anderson after the measure passed amidst the chaos. “I did not vote. It’s outrageous that they ran this thing through without any discussion. This illegal motion is the last in a series of anti-democratic positions taken by this mayor and his cronies.”

Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, who had been planning to presented an alternative proposal to the council that Bates did not allow to be discussed – but was not permitted by Bates to do so – said the spontaneous vote was “the most outrageous thing I’ve seen the council do.”

“We’re going to have to get lawyers to look at this tape and evaluate it,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the third abstention and the first council member to join the impassioned community members in song.

Berkeley residents against a proposed sitting ban carried signs inside City Council chambers Tuesday night. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The three councilmembers issued a press release Wednesday afternoon accusing Mayor Tom Bates of censoring free speech, and possibly violating the Brown Act. They called it “BatesGate,” and said Bates did not allow the three to address the body as many times as they wanted to, even though they had pushed their buttons to speak. Bates was not available to comment by press time Wednesday.

The vote came as the three councilmembers had left the dais to join people in the audience to sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Before calling the question to a vote, Bates had repeatedly asked the three to stop singing and return to their seats, and councilmembers shouted at each other from across the room. All councilmembers who voted in favor of placing the ordinance on the ballot left the room quickly afterward without commenting.

The sitting ban would prohibit sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Once the law goes into effect, in July 2013, violators would receive a $50 fine.

The ordinance says that unruly sidewalk dwellers have caused harm to businesses and that patrons “increasingly choose not to conduct business in Berkeley commercial areas, but instead go to other cities where the shopping areas are perceived to be safer, cleaner, and generally more hospitable.”

By the time the frustrated Bates called the vote, more than 40 community members had voiced their opposition to the measure. Those who spoke included City Council interns, UC Berkeley student government representatives, homeless people, and lawyers.

“Let’s get real, we know who this is aimed at,” said Marsha Feinland, a former State Senate candidate. “Can we really blame the homeless and mentally ill for the economic crisis and the collapse of downtown Berkeley?”

Ann Fagan Ginger sits on the floor to emphasize her opposition to a proposed anti-sitting ordinance as she addresses the City Council in Berkeley on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. Photo: David Yee

“This sounds a lot like selective enforcement and economic profiling,” said UC Berkeley student Brittnay Whitehill. “I don’t think threatening someone with incarceration will build trust.”

A sole speaker advocated for the measure’s placement on the ballot. “This is the final piece of the puzzle needed to make the commercial district welcoming,” said John DeClercq, the co-chair of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. However, the measure has received strong support from many downtown merchants, who say the people sitting in front of their doors have been bad for business.

Earlier Tuesday, Arreguín had released his “Compassionate Sidewalks Plan,” which he had planned to formally introduce at the council meeting before it was abruptly adjourned. The plan includes the creation of a working group comprised of city and police representatives, homeless people, business owners, and attorneys to address existing and necessary laws. The plan also recommends increased funding for day use shelters, youth shelters, public restrooms, and mental health services.

“The prevalence of homelessness is indicative, rather than causal, of an economic decline,” Arreguín wrote in his report. “Unfortunately, history is replete with example of ‘scapegoating’ classes of individuals during times of economic hardship.”

Becky O’Malley, the editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet, wears red plastic chair earrings to represent her opposition to a sitting ban. Many people wore the chairs, which came in red or florescent green, at the meeting. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Becky O’Malley, the editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet, wears red plastic chair earrings to represent her opposition to a sitting ban. Many people wore the chairs, which came in red or florescent green, at the meeting. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Though many speakers expressed anger and dismay at the ordinance, the mood in the packed room was spirited and lively. Throughout the night several popular songs were performed with adapted lyrics and all speakers received wild applause — or hisses.

By the time most opponents and proponents had shuffled out of the room, in either exhaustion or frustration, Worthington was still clasping hands with those who remained, singing loudly.

“There’s quite a few of us who are probably going to go and get arrested if they pass this law,” he said.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...