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Webster Street Farmer’s Market Now Has “Free Speech Area” – But They Miss The Point

At yesterday’s Webster Street Farmer’s Market, Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Association Regional Manager Carle Brinkman told us that the Market now provides a “free speech area.” But the Market, and WABA, both seem to have missed the point.

Previously we reported that, last week, West Alameda Business Association (WABA) Executive Director Kathy Moehring declared a ban on anti-SunCal pamphleteers at the market. Ms. Moehring is the Alameda “citizen” that signed SunCal’s Alameda Point Revitalization Initiative, and she is listed as an “advisory committee” member for a SunCal front group known as “Alamedans for Alameda Point Revitalization.”

But both Ms. Moehring and Ms. Brinkman are on weak legal footing. Ms. Moehring is effectively a paid employee of the City of Alameda as suggested by documents obtained by Action Alameda News, including the use permit issued to WABA for the Farmer’s Market and the City documents detailing the over $100,000 per year grant from the City of Alameda to WABA. (The Farmer’s Market is not named on the use permit.)

According to those documents, Ms. Mohering is paid $75,000 per year as the executive director for WABA – the grant from the City of Alameda more than covers her salary, effectively making her a City employee. Further, the Farmer’s Market takes place on City-owned public property – a portion of Haight Street near Webster, and the City-owned lot that runs between Santa Clara and Haight behind buildings fronting Webster. Further still, we see no evidence that WABA pays any fee to the City of Alameda for the use permit – the City funds the use of the space to hold the Farmer’s Market twice a week.

Case Law

Two particular cases in California provide ample support for the freedom of citizens to exercise their constitutionally protected rights to free speech at the Farmer’s Market. In Sloman v. Tadlock, pamphleteer Sloman successfully defended his right to free speech on public property. In Pruneyard Shopping Center et al v. Robins et al. the California Supreme Court held that – and this was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court:

the California Constitution protects “speech and petitioning, reasonably exercised, in shopping centers even when the centers are privately owned.”

The Farmer’s Market seems to be falsely relying on the Pruneyard ruling – treating their market as a private shopping center, as if they owned the land they operate on – to create a “free speech area” within which to corral speakers with whom Kathy Moehring – or SunCal – is Moehring acting as an agent of the City of Alameda? of WABA? of SunCal – disagree. But, in fact, it is a public space, held as it is on public land and subsidized six-ways-to-Sunday as it is by the local municipal government.

Merchants Unhappy

After last week’s article, and a subsequent article in the local print weekly about SunCal’s submission of their petition signatures to the voter’s registrar office, we were contacted by Webster Street merchants who are unhappy with WABA’s declared support of the SunCal initiative, but who declined to be identified in print out of fear of retribution, for reasons which will immediately become clear.

We were told that even though the local print newspaper reported last Friday that the initiative has the support of “the West Alameda Business Association,” there was in fact no vote on the matter by the 125 business members in the association, only a decision made by board members, and that there has not been a WABA board election in five or six years, possibly in violation of the Association’s charter or by-laws. Ms. Moehring is described as a forceful person who “rides herd” over her board of directors to keep them in line. The general tone of the messages we received was that Kathy Moehring’s position on SunCal represents a political and financial conflict of interest. WABA members reportedly pay $253 per year to WABA in addition to the City of Alameda license renewal fee of $75.

WABA will hold a meeting from 5pm to 7pm, on Monday, October 5th, at Otaez Restaurant at 1619 Webster Street which evidently will be related to the SunCal initiative. We hope that other merchants un-happy with WABA will stand up at that meeting and challenge their leadership.

3 comments to Webster Street Farmer’s Market Now Has “Free Speech Area” – But They Miss The Point

  • barb

    Conflict of interest is a very polite characterization of the Ex. Director of WABA, Moehring’s intentional aim to self destruct Webster Street. If she is being paid $75,000 by WABA (from the CITY) while at the same time, being the sole citizen signatore responsible for putting SUNCAL on the initiative map, those merchants on Webster Street ought to tar and feather her.

    How soon they forget the blow that Marina Village struck against Webster Street merchants 30 years ago. Webster is just starting to recover. What hotels are people going to stay in, where are they going to eat, buy their coffee, and what shops are they going to patronize once SUNCAL gets its 3 million square feet of commercial space in?

    I hope SUNCAL is paying her the thirty pieces of silver which she richly deserves. With guarantees of all the shops, restaurants and other businesses she wants to own at the Point after she singlehandedly destroys Webster Street as a viable re-emerging business district. If she isn’t making millions off SUNCAL she is undervaluing herself.

  • Webster Street merchants need to learn their rights they are entitled to for their annual WABA fee, and through the WABA charter and by-laws, and stand up to the “tyrant of Webster Street.”

    The other thing we’ve heard is that Moehring is quite happy to ignore the concerns of immigrant merchants on Webster for whom English is a second language. Another group for her to bully around, it seems.

  • Alan

    Just to add references to two more 9th Circuit free speech cases which you’ll have to look up, in the Las Vegas Fremont Street case, the 9th Circuit has repeatedly ruled that the City of Las Vegas and the casinos lining Fremont Street absolutely cannot interfere with First Amendment activities on Fremont Street, or confine them to a tiny space. The City of Las Vegas closed Fremont Street to traffic about 10 years ago, and the neighboring casinos both built a canopy over it but also pay assessments to maintain the street, the light show inside the canopy and the weekend evening entertainment. The 9th Circuit is insistent Fremont Street is a public place.

    The Mormon Church has faced a similar 9th Circuit buzz saw with Temple Square, which it bought from Salt Lake City, and tried to close the square to any “free speech” except that consistent with Mormon Church philosophies. The 9th Circuit has repeatedly told the Mormon Church that all free speech activities can go on anywhere on the square, not confined to a little box, because in the court’s view the square is still public property.

    Then there’s the City of Los Angeles attempts to keep tarot card readers with card tables off Ocean Front Walk in Venice. Again, the Federal courts have told L.A. that tarot card reading with card tables and chairs for the subject of the reading are First Amendment activities that the City cannot regulate.

    My bottom line on this Ms. Moehring is that one of Alameda’s finest public spirited attorneys must sue her personally, and get an injunction against her activities. If the West Alameda Business Association wants to pay her legal fees fine…but I wonder how the Association members will feel about paying the freight. With a person like Ms. Moehring, they only understand one thing, and that is pain in the pocket book. Sue her now, because her attempts to work for SunCal and D.E. Shaw, and interfere with the use of public property, are going to be the tip of the iceberg. These pro-initiative people have to be made to understand that they minute they interfere with someone else’s First Amendment rights, they are going to be sued. That’s the only way to make people like them behave in a civil manner towards others.