Santa Cruz Councilmember Micah Posner believes the city’s bike distribution should go back to a nonprofit like the Bike Church, rather than to auction. Photo by Chip Scheuer
Casey Monahan, last year’s Santa Cruz youth mayor, owes his job in part to the Bike Church and the free bicycle distribution program, which the nonprofit operated though the spring of 2012.
“Every day I got to work and school and here on a bike that I got through the bicycle distribution program for youth,” Monahan said in the Santa Cruz City Council chambers last month, as councilmembers weighed the future of the program. “It was a tremendous resource for me. My bike was stolen, and I went to the Bike Church and got a bike, and I rode it everyday.”
The Bike Church started distributing unclaimed lost and stolen bikes in 2008 through a program set up by a 1996 ordinance. But Santa Cruz Police stopped bringing the bikes in 2008, without notifying volunteers, and the nonprofit—which donated 415 bikes to kids in four years—has spent much of the last year and a half trying to get the distribution back to its shop on Spruce at Cedar Street.
SCPD officials gave varied reasons for why they moved the bike distribution. Deputy Chief Rick Martinez said Bike Church volunteers weren’t doing enough to register bikes, and fellow Deputy Chief Steve Clark said they were rude to officers.
For nine months, the Bike Dojo, a private business, handled the distribution, but under city law, the organization distributing lost and stolen bikes was supposed to be a nonprofit. Finally, the city manager’s office ended the bike distribution last summer, proceeding to auction off the bikes instead through a company based in Arizona, which keeps 52 percent of the profits. The next step, Bernal said, would be for city staff to issue requests for proposals that would allow the Bike Church and other organizations to apply to participate in a new distribution plan.
That never happened. The city manager’s office floated three different options to the city council at their Jan. 28 meeting, one of which would have allowed organizations like the Bike Church to apply to be a part of the program. More than 15 public commenters spoke in favor of that plan at the meeting, and no one spoke against it. According to polls on Civinomics.com, the plan had 83 percent support.
Another proposal would have auctioned off all the bikes. A compromise solution suggested the staff give some of the bikes to the Teen Center and auction off the rest, using those bike sales to fund the program. Assistant city manager Scott Collins explained that the auctions would offset costs of staff time. Councilmember Cynthia Mathews said the third option accommodated decreased staffing levels at SCPD. “We have to look for a way that minimizes the demand on their time, so they can focus on their core activities,” Mathews said.
Vice Mayor Don Lane said the Teen Center would do a decent job getting bikes to kids, but still wouldn’t distribute like the Bike Church—which, when it ran the distribution, used to share its bikes with the Teen Center.
“Suddenly the staff decided, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is such a political hot potato, we need to think of a new way to deal with this,’ and it’s not a bad solution,” Lane said. “The problem is the process: we have really treated an organization unfairly, and I don’t understand why, and I still would like to ask councilmembers what the Bike Church has done wrong that they were not afforded an opportunity to submit a request for proposals.”
No explanations were forthcoming, but the council promptly voted 5-2 to approve a plan to give the distribution to the Santa Cruz Teen Center, with Lane and Posner dissenting.
Later that week, staff realized city code would require them post a notice in a city newspaper each time they hold an auction, something they hadn’t been doing, but they say plan to start now.
Some insiders, most of them off the record, have suggested the rift between the SCPD and the Bike Church originates with tensions between police and the anarchist crowd that sometimes frequents the Church and the café next door. “I suspect police have some distrust for this group, because it’s next to SubRosa Café, which is full of anarchists, and they may have some fears that somehow they’re stealing the bikes,” says former Mayor Mike Rotkin. “But the fact of the matter is it’s a nonprofit. I don’t see how it could happen.”
“The question that keeps occurring is why not give all the bikes back to the community instead of giving them to a private auction house and have them make half the money off of it,” Posner says. “This isn’t a big deal. It just continues to add mysteriousness in regards to the city’s process on this issue.”