Free speech is alive and well in Sebastopol, and to that end, SebastopolCitizens.org wants to erect an informational tent in the recently renamed Mario Savio Free Speech Plaza in downtown Sebastopol.
“The purpose of this tent would be to distribute information about our organization, make fellow citizens of Sebastopol aware of our positions on important issues, promote open and transparent government and exercise our right to free speech in a plaza dedicated to that very ideal,” wrote John Necker, a representative of SebastopolCitizens.org, in an e-mail to City Council members requesting space in the Plaza.
“This is about awareness and open and transparent government,” Necker said. “That’s what we’re looking for and that is mostly our focus. But, we also want more community involvement.”
Necker, a retired electrical contractor and computer technician who has lived in Sebastopol since 1976, is a political neophyte who ignored local politics until the leaf blower issue came before City Council in late 2009 and intensified in the ensuing months.
“We created SebastopolCitizens.org in response to what we thought was a Draconian move,” he said. “It could have been handled a lot easier.”
The website hopes to become a clearinghouse of information for the community and has led Necker to do something that not many citizens are willing to do: Sit through entire City Council meetings on a regular basis taking notes on the proceedings.
The results of his analysis, his notes and those of colleague Kelly Swedenborg, along with documents posted on the City’s website, are updated regularly. The site also announces upcoming meetings, highlighting important issues that generally do not even register on most people’s radar.
“We want to focus on a city government that is not always open to divergent points of view within the community,” Necker said. “We want a tent in the Plaza to make people aware of the issues and to exercise our free speech.”
Fulfilling one of its primary missions, Sebastopol-Citizens.org even reported on the renaming of the Downtown Plaza to the Mario Savio Free Speech Plaza in October 2012, and now they want to take advantage of that action.
“He’s welcome to put up an information table and cover it with a tent, but it has to come down every night,” Mayor Michael Kyes said, adding that in order for the tent to stay up overnight, City Council would have to take specific action.
City Manager and Attorney Larry McLaughlin said that although precedent has been set, SebastopolCitizens.org would have to go through the process and get Council permission.
“It is a free speech plaza and we don’t try to structure what people do there,” he said. “To do a big event would require a permit, but a tent becomes a structure. … The City has a right to maintain the site for everyone’s use and can inhibit and reasonably restrict the time, place and manner that people use the space.”
“We are more lenient (on the Plaza) than with other public facilities, though,” McLaughlin added.