Once upon a time, specifically June 23, an association of 118 Menlo Park business and property owners set up a table during a Chamber of Commerce block party to hand out information regarding their opposition to the city's downtown plan.
At the end of the party, Fran Dehn, chamber president, approached Nancy Couperus, property owner and founding member of the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance, to refund the association's $100 participation fee and say that the group would be welcome to have a table in the free speech zone at the next party on Aug. 11, but was not eligible to set up with the other businesses on Santa Cruz Avenue.
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 explained that the Bohannon Development Company does business in Menlo Park, while the city partners with the chamber to host the block parties.
Mark Flegel, owner of Flegels furniture store 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. 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 qualify for tables outside the free speech zone, according to Ms. Dehn. 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.