News - July 7, 2010

Downtown block party draws line around free speech

by Sandy Brundage

Sometimes you get a refund you don't want. Nancy Couperus, Menlo Park commercial property owner and founding member of the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance found herself in that awkward position after the Chamber of Commerce's block party on June 23.

Chamber President Fran Dehn stopped by the Alliance's table as the party wound down, according to Ms. Couperus, and handed back $100 in an envelope, saying that since the association was considered a political group, it did not qualify to participate.

"I went home and scratched my head," said Ms. Couperus. "We thought it was a great opportunity to get information out to the public."

The Alliance consists of 118 business and property owners who signed a petition opposing the city's development plan for downtown Menlo Park.

The chamber's website states, "Anyone with a Menlo Park business license is eligible to participate, as are nonprofit organizations who service the Menlo Park area."

The Bohannon Development Company championed its Gateway project at last year's block party, while the city of Menlo Park promoted its vision of downtown at this year's.

The move ruffled feathers among the association's members, many of whom also belong to the chamber, and who wondered why representatives of the Bohannon Gateway Project and the city's plan are not restricted to the free speech zone. Ms. Dehn said that Bohannon does business in downtown Menlo Park, and the city partners with the chamber to put on the event.

Mark Flegel, owner of Flegels furniture on Santa Cruz Avenue, said: "The Chamber of Commerce is supposed to represent business interests. It was a block party, in the public domain. Anyone can put a table up and say whatever they want to say about anything. The chamber has no bearing and no legal basis to restrict that."

The free speech zone is not a new feature at the block party. "There was nothing different in the way we implemented the policy this year over previous years," Ms. Dehn said. "I'm sorry this has become an issue; it was never intended to become an issue."

What went awry was the timing. The Menlo Park Downtown Alliance submitted its registration form while Ms. Dehn was out of town, she said, and got overlooked. "I should have seen it, I should have flagged it, and I should have contacted Nancy ahead of time. A block party captain happened to put her in that space and I chose to not move the table because I was trying to be sensitive," she said, referring to the June 16 fire that affected one of Ms. Couperus's commercial properties.

Posting the registration form on the chamber's website contributed to the miscommunication. The form does not specify any criteria or mention the free speech zone. "Usually we send applications to everyone who participated in previous years, so they would have already known which zone they would be in," said Ms. Dehn.

Menlo Park businesses and 501c(3) nonprofits can participate outside the free speech zone, but apart from that, the exact criteria for deciding who goes where remains unclear. Groups funneled into the free speech area don't pay a registration fee.


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