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ARPA Funds and the Public Commons at Concord's Todos Santos

by Someone
On the council agenda for their February 7th meeting, Concord's city council will consider giving nearly half-a-million dollars to the Todos Santos Business Association for "porters" and "private security". This private-public partnership to patrol Todos Santos Park and the adjacent downtown area will blur the lines between private property and public commons.
The city of Concord is trying to appropriate $6.5million dollars in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. On February 7th, council will make a final decision on projects it wishes to use ARPA funding for. That point-5 in the total is an appropriation for the Todos Santos Business Association. The TSBA wants to hire private security and private porters to "enhance safety and cleanliness" of the downtown.

Concord's downtown area already is safe and clean. There is little crime in the area. Children regularly play at Todos Santos Park. People of all ages relax in the park. Residents and visitors visit the weekly farmers market. People visit the downtown area for dining and ice-cream, or to hang out at the local pubs. Concord's Todos Santos Park hosts regionally popular free concerts during the summer season. The police department has a regular presence at the Todos Santos Plaza neighborhood, with a police substation directly across the street from the park, and vehicles patrolling the area.

If businesses want to pay for their own private security, that is their right to do so. The government should not be responsible for covering these costs. The downtown area already is monitored by police, a department that already takes the majority share of the city budget. The downtown area is also monitored by the general public. The average person has a cellphone and knows how to dial 911 (emergency), 211 (essential services) or 988 (mental health crisis).

So what's the reason for the proposed "safety and cleanliness" program? Typically, this type of language describes a program intended to target homeless people, and prevent them from equally accessing the public commons. During the pandemic, the benches along the perimeter Todos Santos Park were bisected with metal bars, prevent people from lying on them. This measure was done outside of public process. The Parks and Recreation Commission didn't hold a hearing about this issue, nor did city council. There was no public input on modifying the benches. The act was just done. Even for people who aren't homeless, the bars make the benches less inviting and comfortable to sit on, particularly if one wants to prop up their feet.

When homeless people use the park, they are mindful, and often just want to blend in with any other person. Even during the height of the pandemic, there was not a tent encampment at Todos Santos, nor issues with excessive build up of garbage. The Business Association is exaggerating a problem in an attempt to take in ARPA funds. Watchdog groups say that ARPA funds nationwide are being wasted and misappropriated.

The 'porter' program is intended to be what some cities call 'ambassadors'. Street 'ambassadors' are often used to move homeless people out of an area for sitting, lying or sleeping. These are jobs associated with enforcing exclusion and gentrification. Video from Eugene, Oregon: In the Bay Area, the Downtown Berkeley ambassadors gained notoriety for stealing and disposing of homeless peoples' property, and even assaulting homeless people. Video from Berkeley: There is a lot of controversy in using an ambassador force, which is probably why Concord is avoiding using the term. Video from Atlanta, Georgia:

The proposal put forward by the Todos Santos Business Association and some city leaders does not call for employees who are trained in mental health support, conflict resolution or social work. However, these types of programs put their employees in situations where they are in conflict with homeless people. In terms of reducing homelessness or dealing with social issues, porters are not an answer.

When it comes to addressing cleanliness of the downtown, these types of positions are often under-paid, and offer little-to-no work benefits. A porter position would not provide as much pay and benefits, than if the city hired new city public works staff. Block By Block, the company often contracted to fill ambassador positions, faces a class-action lawsuit originally initiated by a worker in West Hollywood. The allegations include wage theft, and failure to provide proper lunch breaks. Source: While it is not clear if the Business Association intends on using Block By Block, or another vendor, the problem is the same across the industry. This type of program undermines the livable-wage, union jobs by outsourcing civil service positions to private companies. If the city wants more people to pick up trash, then it should hire new city employees to do it.

The line between private property and public commons gets blurred when a Business Association has authority to patrol sidewalks, streets and parks. A Business Association's agenda to control behavior within its improvement district can come at odds with the actual law. Business Associations often will try to push boundaries and act as if sidewalk spaces and other open space is an extension of private property. This type of private monitoring of an area is often over zealous when it comes to attempting to silence private performance of music (busking), and public political speech. There is often an unequal enforcement against loitering, and a misuse of trespass laws. The proposal to be voted on by council does include an allowance of encroachment into the public commons by the Business Association. Cities that have these types of programs will often find public benches fully removed, private seating and tables placed in the public commons, and other modifications to public spaces made outside of public process.

Concord is trying to justify the expense by saying the authorization to the Business District is only a 2 year pilot experiment. If this program is expected to fail in 2 years, then it is a waste of money to fund something that ends in such a short time. If the program is expected to succeed, then realistically there will be a reoccurring cost after the 2 years are over. If the hope and expectation is to provide long terms jobs, the investment should be made in civil jobs. For example, the money could go towards increasing staff for CORE (Coordinated Outreach, Referral, & Engagement).

In a final note, it is counter-productive for the Business Association to exaggerate problems in Concord's downtown. If they intend to broadcast a depiction of the area as being unclean and unsafe, they run the risk of deterring people from visiting the area. What kind of reasonable economic plan is it to tell the public to beware the downtown? How does it help small businesses to spread rumors that the downtown is a worse place to be than it actually is? How does it attract new business?
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