By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group
A Berkeley ban on sidewalk sitting in commercial areas will go to voters in November, the City Council decided Tuesday night.
The council voted 6-3 to put the measure on the ballot, after hearing testimony from more than 60 people in a lively meeting that ended close to 1 a.m. Audience members yelled at council members and each other and council members mixed it up verbally among themselves.
Most of those speaking during the public comment period -- homeless teens, civil rights advocates, and homeless shelter providers -- opposed the idea. They squared off against some residents, chamber of commerce representatives, small business owners and business association representatives who were for the measure.
Highlights of public testimony on the issue included a young woman on acoustic guitar who sang a four-minute song about the right to sit; a young homeless advocate called Ninja Kitty; and a woman from the Homeless Action Center who engaged the audience in a call and response protest from the podium.
Earlier in the day, Mayor Tom Bates and council members Laurie Capitelli and Linda Maio held a press conference softening their approach to the measure by announcing it wouldn't take effect until July 1, 2013. That would give outreach workers time to offer those sitting on the sidewalks services like housing and mental health counseling before they are cited with an infraction, according to the mayor and two council members.
Maio said the law would be a last resort, something the city could have in its "back pocket" if all else failed.
But advocates for the homeless in Berkeley weren't buying that during the meeting.
"Don't pretend that you're doing it out of deep concern for homeless," said Osha Neumann, who was representing the East Bay Community Law Center. "If that is true, why was not one single homeless provider consulted on this? This is all stick and no carrot and calling a stick a carrot doesn't make it so."
But John Caner, the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said his members want change downtown.
"The public are concerned about our public spaces," Caner said. "We want welcoming spaces that everyone can enjoy -- small children, seniors even the homeless. We have broad support from the business community on this. Please go forward and instruct the city manager to put this on the ballot."
If passed by voters, the measure will ban sitting on sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.