Friday, January 17, 2014

Berkeley Sit/Lie Campaign to Pay $3,750 Penalty for Election Violations

Measure S was defeated in November 2012
by four percentage points.
BERKELEY | The ill-fated campaign committee which advocated in 2012 for a controversial sit/lie ordinance in Berkeley agreed to pay $3,750 to settle a citizen complaint that it violated the city’s election laws. Last November, the Coalition for Berkeley Civil Sidewalks, Yes on S and the city’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission (FCPC) agreed to enter a stipulated judgment for failing to properly disclose and itemize 58 cash payments over $50 and failing to report $530 in non-monetary payments to Election Day canvassers.

The closed door negotiations between the commission’s staff counsel and the Yes on S campaign, however, had previously agreed to a lower $2,750 settlement. After two motions, one to increase the amount and one to approve the recommended settlement, which is voluntary, failed following consecutive 3-3 ties, the attorney for Yes on S agreed to raise the amount. Afterwards, John Caner, the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, who was named in complaint, called the commission’s punishment “$3,750 for an honest mistake.“

Opponents of the Yes on S campaign, however, maintain, Caner specifically, used the previously undisclosed cash donations to pay canvassers who themselves were homeless, in effect, paying people who may be most affected by the measure’s goal of ridding the poor from sitting on sidewalks in Berkeley’s commercial areas. The FCPC said this underlining issue which moved Berkeley residents Bob Offer-Wistort and Patricia Wall to lodge an official complaint last August, was not within its jurisdiction.

Wall, who worked on the campaign against the sit/lie measure, said she believes the commission’s initial penalty was too lenient. “This behavior is essentially being condoned,” said told the commission. “Fines should indicate punishment. This is not punishment. It’s a mere gesture.” Wall called the alleged recruitment of homeless canvassers “sleazy.” Not far away, Caner quietly repeated from his seat, “that’s not true” as Wall further denounced his alleged actions. “We did not recruit homeless people,” Caner told the commission.

Offer-Wistort disagreed and added he and others personally met canvassers who, indeed, said they were homeless. “This is stuff I saw with my own eyes,” he said. “I don’t care how much you fine Mr. Caner. It doesn’t make a difference to me. I don’t see any correlation between a dollar amount and justice being done. What I care about is the actual story getting out. I think we operate with a politics of shame when we use people based on their economic status to work against their own interests.”

Dean Metzger, an FPCP commissioner, called the entire incident “shady” for the lack of transparency on the part of the Yes on S campaign and initially advocated for a penalty over $50,000. “To put this under the rug, I think it’s something that does a disservice to the citizens of Berkeley.” Dave Ritchie, the vice chair of the commission, also pushed for increasing the penalty while arguing Caner and the Yes on S campaign were not local political neophytes. “This campaign was not run by a group of people who came out of the woodwork and knew nothing about the city.” Ritchie said the initial penalty was low and “should be something so people actually pay attention to the law.”

In an interview afterwards, Caner said, “There was nothing to hide as far as I’m concerned” and agreed to the increased penalty to achieve immediate closure. “We lost, but the thing is, I feel really good about the campaign we ran. We did it with a lot of integrity. I think the dialogue was good and I want to work with these people in the future. I don’t hold a grudge and, thank God, I just want to put this behind us.”

A version of this article appears in the East Bay Express.


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