With newcomer Councilmember Pat Kerninghan urging fellow members to “just pass this and move on to more constructive things; I’m tired of the negative press Oakland is getting on this,” Oakland City Council passed a slightly modified version on first reading of Mayor Jerry Brown’s sideshow ordinance Tuesday in a rare morning meeting.

The ordinance makes spectating at sideshows a criminal activity for the first time, as well as allows forfeiture of vehicles involved in the events.

A final vote on the measure is scheduled for July 19.

Mayor Brown did not attend the council meeting, but spoke with reporters outside City Hall immediately following the meeting.

The term “sideshow” is most often used in Oakland to describe street or parking lot congregations of young African-Americans or Latinos in cars. The events often involve intricate car maneuvers, including one called “spinning donuts,” in which drivers spin their cars in a circle, leaving black, donut-shaped tire tracks in the street while spectators cheer them on. The gatherings are considered illegal, and Oakland police have spent the last several years trying to shut them down.

The vote at Tuesday morning’s meeting was 6-0-1 with Vice Mayor Jane Brunner abstaining. Two candidates for mayor in next year’s election–Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and Councilmember Nancy Nadel–both voted for the ordinance. Councilmember Desley Brooks, who had argued against the proposed ordinance when it first came to council last month, was not present at the meeting.

Oakland City Council goes on an eight-week vacation following the July 19 meeting, and with two separate readings needed for passage of an ordinance, council representatives said that without the 11 a.m. special meeting, the sideshow ordinance could not be passed to go into effect this summer.

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente set the tone for the meeting when he announced, even before councilmembers began to deliberate, that he would “not support any changes to this ordinance if there are any reductions in fines.”

That prompted a reply from Brunner, who said that she was “disappointed that you started the dialogue saying you wouldn’t support any changes. If that’s the case, I’m not sure why I am here today. I’m not a member of the Public Safety Committee [where the compromise provisions were worked out]. I thought we were here to deliberate.”

Councilmember Jean Quan, who crafted some of the modified portions of the measure, called it “a fair compromise.”

Councilmember Larry Reid, who has long opposed what he called Tuesday “the insanity that is the sideshow,” said that passage of the ordinance “will help us attract retailers to the MacArthur corridor.” The area of MacArthur Boulevard between High Street and the San Leandro border has been the scene of much of the sideshow activity.

In announcing why she abstained on the measure, Brunner said, “I absolutely support the arrest of any driver in a sideshow who causes damage with their car, and I support giving tickets to sideshow spectators.”

But Brunner said that the ordinance needed a “mandatory warning provision” that required police to give spectators the chance to disperse. In addition, Brunner said that the ordinance’s “$500 ticket is too much money for the first offense. I would support $150 for the first offense and $500 for the second offense, and I’d even be willing to support an arrest for the third offense. But with a fee this high, I can’t support it.”

Under the modified ordinance, fines will escalate from $500 to $750 to $1,000 for the first three offenses. The first two offenses will constitute an infraction–comparable to a parking ticket–while the third and all subsequent offenses will constitute a misdemeanor, a criminal offense that subjects the offender to a possible jail time of six months. Under the mayor’s original ordinance, all of the offenses were misdemeanors.

In answer to a question, Deputy City Attorney Rocio Fierro said that including a provision in the law that made it necessary for police to issue a warning to disperse before ticketing or arresting sideshow spectators could be a conflict with state law.

And Interim Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker said that his officers “have every intention to do outreach first before beginning to enforce this law. We will attempt to notify people and admonish them that spectating at sideshows is illegal.”

Tucker said that one form of notification would be leaflets passed out in the community. Tucker said that the notification by police of unlawful assembly and warning to disperse generally precedes a mass arrest, and said that Oakland police do not intend to initiate mass arrests through the new ordinance, if it is eventually passed.

“We will surgically apply this ordinance,” he said.

Other modifications to the mayor’s original ordinance gave a more detailed definition of spectators under the law, and required the police to return to the Public Safety Committee in six months and to the entire City Council in a year with a report on the enforcement of the ordinance.

With several of the council members scheduled to attend a noon Public Works Committee meeting, public and staff testimony, council debate, and the vote were all rushed through in an hour for the far-reaching measure.

One indication of that rush was uncertainty over whether violators of the proposed ordinance could work out their fines or sentences in public works activities. Questioned closely by Vice Mayor Brunner, Deputy City Attorney Fierro said such provisions “need to be worked out with the courts,” and that talks were ongoing with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office on the subject.

The ordinance had drawn large crowds–mostly in opposition to the measure–when it was introduced to council June 7 and debated by the Public Safety Committee on June 29. But public attendance at Tuesday’s council meeting was sparse and only a handful of people spoke on the ordinance, all but one of them in favor of passage.

Originally Published July 15, 2005 in the Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper, Berkeley, California