Chamber of Commerce president comments on 'free speech zone' at Menlo Park block party


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.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by menlo voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 1, 2010 at 1:07 pm

since when does the chamber get to restrict free speech? It is a city street. I find the chambers behavior to be rather un-American.

Like this comment
Posted by Santa Cruz Business
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 1, 2010 at 2:05 pm

The chamber should spend less time in politics and council watching, and more time representing 'bidness'. They have a problems attracting members.

Like this comment
Posted by Chrissy Spanoghe
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2010 at 2:30 pm

This is an absolute violation of our first amendment right as Americans. "Free speech zones" are unconstitutional and the Menlo Park Chamber should be ashamed of themselves.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 1, 2010 at 7:18 pm

The Chamber of Commerce has poor membership numbers because
the don't represent the merchants. They stick with the
City, at the expense of all businesses, and particularly
their customers.

Like this comment
Posted by James Madison
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 1, 2010 at 7:22 pm

If the Chamber is going to take sides in support of overdevelopment of the downtown, it certainly should allow those members who ARE part of the downtown to have equal say about the downtown plan and not be relegated to the "free speech zone" at block parties.

Like this comment
Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 1, 2010 at 10:44 pm

So can the unions get a table anywhere they want and campaign? Can the pension reform guys? Can "European American" organizations fundraise anywhere during the event?

I hope not. Otherwise our downtown family event becomes a bunch of political hacks.

You guys need to wake up and realize a PAC is a PAC.

Like this comment
Posted by Block
a resident of another community
on Jul 2, 2010 at 12:39 pm

The block party purpose is to showcase businesses in MP, not necessarily to promote ideas from my understanding. I think it's fine they are asked to move to a different location for next time, and they did get their money refunded as well.

re Chrissy: This does not stop their First Amendment rights and can't believe you even mention something like that. The Chamber didn't say they couldn't have a table, just not one with where the businesses were located, but instead in a seperate area. No rights were infringed upon.

Like this comment
Posted by Can I?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 2, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Can I start a group that investigates the backgrounds and the REAL reason for the selfish motives of this group that is trying to block the downtown plan? I think people would be VERY interested to hear the REAL reason for what is motivating this group. Very selfish reasons, and for themselves.

Like this comment
Posted by Marcy Magatelli
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Dear Can I?, You can ask me. I haved owned a business & a home, in dwntwn MP,for over 20+ yrs. I have been a member of the chamber of commerece, this entire time and have no intention of reigning. I am sory that this issue is focusing on the chamber. I am also a member of the dwntwn alliance group, and would be happy to tell you why. I am disturbed that after 20 yrs. of meetings with various people in city government, elected & salaried, that the merchants' concerns, needs & opinions has gone nowhere, while new members of MP city gvmt hired, at all of our expense, outside consultants, to help them decide, what "is" and "is not" right for Menlo Park. These consultants did not contact or interview me or any merchant ordwntwn property owners or even the parking enforecement officers, before deciding what "we" needed! Yes, I know there were some 'public forums, and I attended some, but I wk on my feet, 6 dys a wk., I am tired at night! No restuarant could attend a meetig at night. Do you believe, that our concerns for our property, yrs of time & money invested, and on-going livelyhood, to be a bad thing? I am not against improvement, I oppose destruction of the things that still thrive, like Flegel's and our Farmers Market. Do you want to know more?

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Dear "Can I" ..Please start that group...We want the citizens
to have full transparency. Ms. Magatelli is right on.

Like this comment
Posted by Can I?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I think most residents, particularly those that attended the many meetings, read the countless accounts of the feedback, the articles etc. are dumbfounded why "all of a sudden" we now need a petition drive for something that could have been discussed in those open forums? I have been a resident for 10+ years, pay the taxes, and work extremely hard too, with many days spent traveling, I was able to attend 3 of these meetings. We, as citizens, paid up words to $1M for this consulting to take place, and bluntly I will state, I don't care what the reason or excuse is, everyone did have their say. If those individuals felt that they did not have their say, I am SURE this consultant would have heard the business owners out, they are very approachable. In fact, I had concerns about the bike lanes. I not only received a very prompt email response, I also was invited to talk directly to them, or bring it to the Bike Commission. I am not buying this "no one would speak to me", if it is that important, someone needed to reach out to the consultants. I also find it extremely disingenuous to pin this on the Farmer's Market, when in fact there could be plenty of opportunity to set up somewhere else, or belong to the very far fetched Farmer's Market under cover. From what I have heard, this is a VERY open idea, that has not been settled, but the consultants are still open to anything here. From my standpoint, and from what I believe is the REAL story here is, I believe it's the possible increase in fees, and the construction that would take place, is what is causing some in the business community to rebel. After X amount of years, of basically nothing, other than currently 12 vacant store fronts, I think it's about time we DID revamp the downtown, and if there are a couple of debates going on about the parking, or the farmer's market concern, we can still address them, and deal with it. It is my opinion, that Ms. Magatelli and her group may be taking this to a new level and trying to abolish anything that has been decided upon for this study. I'm not a great lover of huge development, but this one does have our best interests in mind.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm


what difference does it make if it was to promote businesses and not ideas? The fact is it is a city street and we are free to say or promote any ideas we want to in public. It's our right as Americans. If the chamber wants control over who and what is allowed to present their ideas they should rent a private venue.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2010 at 12:54 am

Dear Can I......You seem like a reasonable guy. We are not concerned with fees, or taxes, but we are concerned about the ioss of revenue and more closed businesses. We realize that logical revamping of the downtown is necessary The loss of surface street parking and the loss of bike lanes are not good ideas. People will be unable to
park nears their banks, restaurants, Walgreen's or Trader Joe's.
Women are reluctant to park in these garages.

Five story parking garages located away from the merchants is not a good idea. Please take a closer look. we invite your interest.

Like this comment
Posted by Interested
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm

It sounds to me like the "President" of the Chamber of Commerce has no idea what going on at the Chamber of Commerce...............Is this a paid position, and who pays for this person to decide who can or cannot exorcise their free speech rights.

Like this comment
Posted by Question Mark
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm

If you wanted to make people less sympathetic to the Downtown Alliance, wouldn't you actually want to *encourage* them to spend more time with Nancy Couperus and Mark Flegel? Try going down to the Farmer's Market and having a reasonable conversation with them on the need to plan responsibly for climate change, and see how fast they make you feel like you're an idiot. The Downtown Alliance's motto should be "Yesterday's Future... Forever".

Like this comment
Posted by deep throat
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Fran Dehn is a paid employee to run the Chamber --- she is not paid to make policy. At what board meeting was it decided to ban Nancy and her group. Fran is obviously covering up what really happened.

The city is heavily invested in this Downtown/El Camino plan. The project has been driven by the consultant and city staff.

So someone please interview board members and find when this decision was made, at what board meeting, because no board member I talked to, know anything about this.

The chamber has been involved with shady/shoddy affairs --- remember blocking of BevMo from coming to Menlo Park.

The strong suspicion is that City staff, which is really irritated with Nancy and her petition put the squeeze on and didn't realize the repercussions.

Like this comment
Posted by News Flash!
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 5, 2010 at 10:00 pm

FYI - Bev Mo has applied for a permit to take over the old Chili's, they will be here soon.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 3 comments | 2,665 views

Juggling Renewables
By Sherry Listgarten | 42 comments | 2,086 views

Premarital and Couples: Living as Roommates?
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,475 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 898 views

A trial run
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 557 views


The Almanac Readers' Choice ballot is here

It's time to decide what local business is worthy of the title "The Almanac Readers' Choice" — and you get to decide! Cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 27th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 17th issue of The Almanac.