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Council Takes Up Promenade Sign Criticizing City


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By Jorge Casuso

June 24, 2024 -- The City Council on Tuesday is scheduled to consider a resolution denouncing a large sign posted on a Promenade storefront that reads: "Santa Methica IS NOT Safe."

Below the sign, which uses the colors of the City's logo, is a black-and-white banner with City Manager David White's picture stating he "supports the Needle & Meth Pipe Distribution program in our Parks and Public Spaces."

Santa Monica Coalition Sign
Image Courtesy of the Santa Monica Coalition

The bipartisan item placed on the agenda prompted pushback from the Santa Monica Coalition, which began posting various versions of the sign on the storefront two years ago, and is stirring a free speech debate.

The agenda item was sponsored by Mayor Phil Brock and Councilmember Lana Negrete -- staunch supporters of the Coalition's efforts to move the needle distribution program indoors -- along with Gleam Davis, who opposes the efforts.

"While the City of Santa Monica is respectful of everyone’s First Amendment rights to free speech," the item states, "in some instances harm can come from expression that is false and/or counter to the public interest."

The resolution "should reflect the Council’s disapproval" of the signs "that falsely state that the City Manager approves of the County’s 'free needle and meth pipe' program."

The resolution should also note that "the City Council and City Manager play no role in authorizing the program" and that the signs "may deter people from visiting and shopping in Santa Monica" as it recovers from the coronavirus shutdown.

"All we're saying is, 'It's time to take the sign down,'" Brock said. "We don't have the governmental ability to take it down. We just want to help the Promenade come back."

"It's merely using our ability to have free speech as a government," Negrete said, "as well as set the facts straight with the community."

John Alle, a co-founder of the Coalition who has been posting the signs on his building at 1335 Third Street, said City officials have failed to crack down on crime and anti-social behavior by the homeless.

"I'm in the business of leasing buildings, and I had to barricade the building," Alle said. "If I don't, the front glass gets shattered once a month. The insurance won't cover it."

The agenda item, he said, is "really a First Amendment issue."

"The City Council is not listening to concerns about what is happening on the ground," Alle said. "The banner was not put up with any malice or based on any untruths."

In a letter sent to the Negrete Monday, Alle and Coalition co-founder Jessica Rogers said they "strongly encourage" the Councilmember "to remove the item from the agenda and table it for good."

"You are not only infringing on our First Amendment right but you are also attempting to hide the truth from the public and silencing any opposition to potentially nefarious and illegal acts performed by City Leaders and staff."

The letter points to a May 2023 joint statement bearing the City and La County Health logos meant to clarify information about the needle exchange program.

"Harm reduction services represent an important tool and component of the multipronged provision of prevention, treatment, recovery, and enforcement needed to address the overdose crisis and other threats to health and wellbeing in Los Angeles County," part of the statement read.

The statement was replaced in February with a version that does not include the City's logo.

Negrete counters that the agenda item "is not about having (Alle) take the sign down. "He keeps saying that we're censoring free speech," Negrete said. "That's not what's happening at all. He can say what he wants, but so can we."

Negrete said the owners of half a dozen buildings on the Promenade, as well as business owners and residents, have complained about the sign.

We're trying to create an economic comeback on the Promenade," she said. "How's that going to help?"

Alle's tactics are also backfiring. "He wants what we want, but the way he goes about it is counter-productive," Negrete said.

"He twists facts, disseminates misinformation and is unwilling to negotiate practically. He doesn't understand the meaning of civil discourse."

The proposed resolution is the latest twist in the battle over the County's needle distribution program, which has been the target of residents who complain Reed Park near the Promenade has been taken over by homeless drug addicts.

Nearly two years ago, the Council began urging County Health officials to move the program indoors ("Council Expected to Ask County's Help Removing Clean Needle Program from Parks," September 12, 2022).

Further efforts by individual Councilmembers, including Brock, failed to change the County's stance that distributing needles in outdoor spaces is the most effective way to reach homeless drug users ("Little Progress Moving Needle Exchange Program Indoors," March 23, 2023).

This April, a deeply divided Council voted 4 to 3 to approve a resolution that "strongly demands" that LA County Health move the program indoors ("Rally to Stop Outdoor Needle Program Draws Councilmembers, Press," April 16, 2024).

Last month, the City Council took further steps in a surprising 6 to 1 vote to bar two non-profits from using City funds to distribute needles around parks and public spaces ("Council Bars Use of City Funds for Needle Distribution Program," May 17, 2024).

City officials aren't the only ones pressuring the County. In February, the Santa Monica Coalition filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the outdoor program ("Santa Monica Group Files Lawsuit Over Needle Program," February 16, 2024).

The Coalition is urging supporters to testify at Tuesday's Council meeting in defense of the signs.

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