Public Comment

The Berkeley City Manager and the DBA's Flier Smackdown, or Defund the DBA

Carol Denney
Saturday September 15, 2018 - 01:46:00 PM

I went straight to the City Manager's office. She's in charge, after all. The City Council advises her if they feel like it. But many of them have perfected the art of sitting firmly on both sides of an issue. Stopping the Downtown Berkeley Association's illegal practice of tearing down legally posted community fliers would seem like a no-brainer, but over the years only a few had even sympathized. And nothing had changed.

It matters. If you play at the San Francisco Fringe Festival or the Freight and Salvage as I do, every poster can reach hundreds of people, interested people if you're good at what you do. Posters that reach pedestrian traffic are crucial; a town that used to boast dozens of lively newspapers is down to a bare handful. Those ugly green metal "ped mount" fixtures empty of newspapers and covered with graffiti used to be full.

She was in. They're always in right before a city council meeting, so it wasn't unexpected. But they're busy before a city council meeting, so I was willing to wait. Which I hope people realize reflects a lot of patience after having this issue unaddressed for decades. You work hard making posters before an event, paying for the duplication at copy stores, walking the streets with wheat paste or tape. Your hall and your personal reputation lives or dies by the door, meaning the traffic that walks in, so getting the word out to a literary crowd in a nearly post-newspaper almost print-free town is a challenge. 

I am patient. I've waited decades for someone to get through to John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, that you don't have to be a nonprofit organization to have the right to put up a poster. You don't have to be the City of Berkeley. You don't have to be affiliated with the University of California. You don't have to restrict your speech to DBA events he is personally promoting. But I can't seem to get through. 

The curious restrictions he uses to parse and selectively remove community fliers appear to be aided and abetted by divinations he makes from the arcane observations of previous city attorneys and public works officials some of whom have tried to make the case that fliers are a danger to public safety - they might jump off the pole and obscure a windshield! I am not joking. 

Again, I am patient. I waited at least half an hour for the City Manager to find a moment to learn that the DBA was at it again. I've worked with a crew to photograph and videotape the DBA crews' first amendment violations over and over again, but whatever word comes out of the city must either be tacitly encouraging them to keep it up or just isn't getting through. 

But hey, I'm not that patient. So I started putting up posters with packing tape on the fifth floor windows while I waited. I had pale yellow paper that looked festive across the back and side windows. I left plenty of room for the larger view of a sparkling fall afternoon. 

The lovely, helpful administrative staff person didn't notice until about the fourth poster and advised me that I was not allowed to post anything in the fifth floor's waiting room area, adding "nobody can." And I answered with a smile how I knew there were rules regarding the posting of fliers and agreed that it was so frustrating when you can't seem to get through to people like the DBA's John Caner about the dang rules. And kept putting up posters. 

And just like magic, the City Manager had time for me. Not only that, the City Attorney was there, too, so that after a little bristling and pawing the ground the case for the First Amendment being the presiding law of the land finally had a brief, private hearing. 

John Caner received a phone call after that meeting. And informed me later at the city council meeting that he and his crew would not be tearing down any more fliers. In fact, he denied having torn down any at all, which is pretty funny considering the photographs, videos, and the armful of torn down fliers I had brought personally to his office only months before, posters straight from the arms of the "ambassador" on his green-shirt crew who had just torn them down. 

But something got through, if temporarily. And it might have been the City Attorney, or the City Manager. But I think it was the yellow fliers decorating the fifth floor of City Hall. Imagine how that was received by a crowd steeped in the idea that a flier can be dangerous! Someone might set it on fire! It might distract somebody who then steps into traffic and gets hit by a car!  

They're in the thick of it now up on the fifth floor, having hired an unaccountable, out-of-control DBA gang to police and harass homeless people, control public space so as to avoid "problematic" behavior, shoo away pesky, unpermitted buskers singing their annoying hearts out, etc. Downtown businesses have no choice anymore about funding this gang; it's compulsory if they're in the footprint of the "business improvement district." That's the law! 

But it doesn't have to be the law. This arrangement can be reversed under Section 19 of the enabling legislation: 

SEC. 19. 

(a) Any district established or extended pursuant to the provisions of this part, where there is no indebtedness, outstanding and unpaid, incurred to accomplish any of the purposes of the district, may be disestablished by resolution by the city council in either of the following circumstances: 

(1) If the city council finds there has been misappropriation of funds, malfeasance, or a violation of law in connection with the management of the district, it shall notice a hearing on disestablishment. 

The section goes on to describe that "each successive year of operation of the district" shall have "a 30-day period" to consider a petition of such concerns, and that if half the group wants to dissolve the unaccountable gang of homeless harassing anti-flier crews they're being forced to fund, "the city council shall pass a resolution of intention to disestablish the district." You and I are part of that group since the BID includes assessments on public buildings- which belong to us. 

The Berkeley City Council and the City Manager have been forgetting all about this part of the legislation. And that's not all they could do. They can revisit any business district's contract and make sure they're explicitly clear that they're not in charge of the town's posters and fliers, which actually help local businesses. And they could stop the current practice of assessing public buildings, which make taxpayers like all of us, you and me, participants in the DBA's First Amendment ignorance and anti-homeless cruelty. 

We're paying for the public assessments as taxpayers. We have a say in the existence, or the dissolution, of the "business improvement district." Especially if, as in Berkeley's case, it seems dedicated to advocating against human rights, civil rights, and common sense. I'm tired of watching the Berkeley City Council passively accept the idea that I should have to pay for the stamps and stationary of a group which advocated openly against not only the poor's rights to rest, sit, and exist in public spaces, but mine, too. 

The Downtown Berkeley Association can continue to exist if it wants to, as a voluntary group. But the mandatory assessment is unfair. Be sure to mention it during this election season to the candidates and contenders vying for your votes. And the best reason to suggest the dissolution of mandatory fees for unaccountable BIDs is that they don't improve business and they don't solve homelessness.  

Our commercial areas are worse than ever and there are thousands living under the overpasses. A recent report from the UC Berkeley School of Law about Business Improvement Districts (BID) points out the clear implication that BIDs make matters worse by promoting counterproductive anti-homeless laws while ignoring the effects of skyrocketing rents, empty commercial spaces owned by out-of-town or even out-of-state landlords, and the caustic effects of mixing nonprofit "social service" efforts with harassment. 

I've lived in Berkeley a long time, long enough to pre-date the DBA and its progenitors. Berkeley's downtown is a joke compared to the days when local businesses flourished because rents were reasonable. Local music and events were easy to learn about by just walking down the lively streets- because you could look at the event fliers and posters. Small comedy and music clubs didn't have to charge an arm and a leg and rent control was real instead of being decimated by Costa-Hawkins. None of that was rocket science, and it's easy to get back there. Boot unaccountability wherever you see it and take back this brilliant, vibrant city. 

Oh, and when the meeting with the City Manager and the CityAttorney was over, my fliers had been taken down. But I asked for them back, and the lovely administrative staff on the fifth floor gave them back to me. They're all over downtown now, and they say, among other things, "Defund the DBA."