Date: Mon, 15 Jun 1998 15:28:59 -0700 (PDT) From: Alerts
Subject: Black Point Forest Update-- 16
ACLU blasts Novato ordinances affecting Black Point Forest election
"Serious constitutional problems" with the City of Novato's solicitation ordinance and permit procedures hampered Forests Forever's ability to organize voters in the recent Black Point Forest election, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In a strongly worded May 1 letter to City of Novato Attorney Jeffrey Walter, the ACLU of Northern California said the City should rewrite its solicitation ordinances to conform to constitutional standards for free speech. And city officials should refund permit fees paid by Forests Forever.
"Clearly, in its dealings with Forests Forever, the City has not acted in a manner consistent with the preferred position that free speech activities enjoy in our constitutional democracy," wrote Alan L. Schlosser, managing attorney with the ACLU chapter.
"It is inexcusable that Forests Forever was denied a... permit for over six months when it is clear that none of Novato's solicitation ordinances are applicable to them," Schlosser added. "This seems particularly suspect when we are told that the group supporting the proposed development at Black Point Forest- a group who shares the City's official position on the issue- did obtain the necessary permits before Election Day.
"This scenario sets off constitutional alarm bells," Schlosser wrote. "An ordinance which provides no clear standards (for permit administrators) is constitutionally flawed because it may have a chilling effect on protected speech... and it has the potential for being a mechanism to suppress a particular viewpoint."
At press time Forests Forever still had not received permits to conduct its ongoing canvassing campaign. Forests Forever had applied in November, 1997, for a permit to canvass Novato residents on the proposed luxury housing and golf course development threatening the Black Point Forest. Located about three miles east of downtown Novato, Black Point Forest is an ecologically valuable and rare oak woodland and seasonal wetland area.
A special election to decide the fate of Black Point Forest, site of the annual Renaissance Pleasure Faire, was held Feb. 24. The developer, Black Point Partnership, had mounted a four-year advertising campaign to whitewash the forest-destroying impacts of the proposed project. A citizens referendum and a developer-sponsored initiative concerning the project both appeared on the ballot. Environmental groups including Forests Forever advocated a "No" vote on both measures. Such a vote would have halted the development.
The procedure to acquire a permit to canvass in Novato proved unusually difficult however. City officials demanded fingerprints, photographs, felony background checks and a $105 fee for each and every Forests Forever canvasser.
"We are especially concerned with this matter because the... delay prevented Forests Forever from participating fully in the February ballot initiative," Schlosser wrote. "The organization made a good faith attempt to comply with all the requirements outlined by the Novato Police Department and yet they were still unable to solicit donations to fund their political activities in time for the election."
In lieu of canvassing, 33 concerned Forests Forever staff members, along with friends and family, on Feb. 8 volunteered their time to campaign door-to-door in Novato. Public response was very positive: Each volunteer spoke with 20 to 30 residents of Novato and reported that pro-development sentiments were expressed by only three or four of those with whom they spoke. The volunteers' goal was to identify pro-Forest votes, recruit volunteers for the "No on A & B" campaign, and encourage high voter turnout on Election Day.
Although the volunteer session was a success, Forests Forever could have accomplished a great deal more, given canvassing permits prior to the election.
"We have a large, effective field canvass program," said Pete Harrison, Forests Forever's Field Canvass Director. "Had we been given the opportunity, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have had a noticeable impact on the election."
The anti-Forest campaign won the election on a 61 to 39 percent vote for both measures. The majority of citizens who turned out at the polls voted "No," the environmental position, but most absentee voters said "Yes." Many volunteer organizers said confused voters reported they had cast a "Yes" vote, believing they were saving Black Point. Indeed, developer road signs, posted prior to the election, misleadingly urged a "Yes" vote to "preserve" the Forest.
The Black Point Forest Rescue Project recently filed suit against the City and the developer on grounds that the approved Environmental Impact Report is inadequate. A hearing date is set for June 26. For more information on how to get involved in efforts to save Black Point, contact the Black Point Forest Rescue Project via voicemail (checked weekly) at 415/ 721-1936.
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