Public Comment

HUAC** at Peace and Justice Commission?

By Gene Bernardi
Tuesday February 15, 2011 - 07:59:00 PM

A rather startling interruption occurred during the Peace and Justice Commission’s (P&J) discussion of a motion at its February 7, 2011 meeting. The motion was to send a letter drafted by the P&J’s Nuclear Free Berkeley Act (NFBA) subcommittee to Library Director Donna Corbeil, asking for “clarification as to whether the risk of unsupported checkout systems, a possible result of the identified gap between the end of the 3M contract and installation of the Bibliotheca system, places at risk the termination of the 3M contract by 14 March, 2011.” 

Translated, this means: Will the Berkeley Public Library (BPL) have its newly-purchased Bibliotheca Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) checkout system for books and other materials fully installed by March 14, 2011. This, so that there will be no question regarding whether BPL can meet the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act waiver deadline of two years that was approved by the City Council, which allowed 3M to maintain the existing proprietary RFID checkout system. (The waiver was required because the 3M Company declined to sign a city-required form that they are not involved, and will be involved, with nuclear weapons or the nuclear fuel cycle during the life of the contract.) 

Suddenly, during the Commission’s discussion of the motion, the secretary to the P&J Commission asserted to the Commissioners that two members of the public, Gene Bernardi of SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense) and Peter Warfield of Library Users Association and SuperBOLD, who had earlier spoken during public comment, were litigants in a suit against the BPL. The chair allowed these two members of the public to respond. Each one stated that neither the organizations they represented, nor either of them as individuals, were litigants in a lawsuit against BPL. 

The P&J secretary, concerned that perhaps Bernardi and Warfield or their organizations may not NOW be litigants, then asked, ‘have you EVER been a litigant against the library?’ 

Although startled by this interruption, which was irrelevant to the motion on the table, Bernardi and Warfield responded that they did not recall any such litigation. However, Warfield said he did recall a SuperBOLD challenge to the Public Comment procedures of the Berkeley City Council and the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), made with the assistance of the First Amendment Project. The challenge — which was not a lawsuit, and did not become one — resulted in expanded public comment at the City Council, in conformance with the Brown Act.  

The First Amendment Project “is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition,” and serves “a core constituency of activists, journalists, and artists who seek to vindicate important First Amendment rights . . . by contesting governmental non-compliance with open records and [open] meetings laws….” according to the group’s website. 

Warfield continued that SuperBOLD received a James Madison Freedom of Information award in the Citizen category from the Society of Professional Journalists for this effort, which resulted in Public Comment improvements at City Council. 

Warfield and Bernardi, in their public comments at this P&J meeting, suggested that, rather than sending the NFBA subcommittee’s letter directly to Library Director Donna Corbeil, that P&J instead advise the City Council to send the letter to the library director. Bernardi read a selection from Berkeley’s Commissioner’s Manual which instructs commissions to advise the City Council and not communicate with outside agencies. 

The effect of the secretary’s interruption was not just the spreading of inaccurate information, but perhaps worse — creating an irrelevant distraction from the topic at hand. It is important to note that even if the falsehood about litigation were true, there is nothing unlawful or inappropriate about filing a lawsuit.  

So the big question is: Why are the NFBA subcommittee and the P&J secretary trying to shield the library director from potential City Council knowledge that either (1) the NFBA waiver deadline may not be met, or that (2) there may be a security gap at the library? 

**HUAC = House Un-American Activities Committee, famous for repeatedly asking the question: “Are you now or have you ever been….?” 

Gene Bernardi is a member of SuperBOLD, Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense, and received a City of Berkeley Outstanding Woman of Berkeley award in 2009.