There was pomp, there was ceremony, and then the clock struck midnight – well, 11:15 p.m. – and the City Council turned back into human beings.
The Mod Squad, lead by Mayor Shirley Dean, spent the first council meeting of the year, in contention with the liberal-progressive majority, debating public toilets, bus passes, traffic reports with the heat of a truly representative democracy.
Things began as they always do at Old City Hall, with 10 members of the public getting their say. Maya Rodolfo-Sioson and Karen Craig, chair and vice-chair of the Commission on Disability spoke heatedly about the treatment of Michael Minasian by the Berkeley Police and management at Jupiter’s Cafe, a popular downtown pub.
Minasian, with his service dog King, an 80-pound German Shepard, talked about his arrest, 20-hour incarceration, and the psychological toll of losing his civil rights when Berkeley Police “disregarded Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Minasian, whose disability is not apparent and who refused to disclose his disability to officers, was arrested for bringing his dog into an eating establishment.
Councilmember Dona Spring followed this with a passionate appeal to City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, to set a progressive policy toward the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, particularly since Berkeley is the “home of the disability movement.”
A contingent of employees from Berkeley Marina businesses came with banners and signs, but failed to have any of their names drawn – public speakers are limited to 10 people chosen by lottery – to speak in favor of an expanded Living Wage Ordinance, which would cover persons employed at the Marina.
Instead, they listened to attorney Zachary Wasserman speak on behalf of the California Restaurant Association, calling the proposed extended ordinance an “excess and abuse of council power.” He called on the council to include the Marina business owners in decisions around the decision which would hike low-wage workers wages to $9.75 per hour if they receive benefits and $11.38 per hour if they don’t.
The employees filed out of the council chambers and down the winding staircase chanting, “No delay on living wage” and the council soon thereafter passed the living-wage extension unanimously.
On other items, the council agreed to allow the city manager to sit on the board of directors of the Berkeley Alliance, a nonprofit group which brings the University of California, the Berkeley School District, and the city together to address issues such as Berkeley High’s achievement gap.
“Latino and African-American students are scoring lower in achievement and test scores in our high school,” said Arietta Chakos, chief of staff in the manager’s office.
“We ask how this can happen in the city that was the first to voluntarily desegregate schools, with the best public university in the nation.”
The Alliance will bring the resources of the university to the day to day problems that the community faces. “It will give the University and the City Council common ground to work together on,” setting the foundation for changing a traditionally contentious relationship, Chakos said.
The council voted along traditional 5-4 lines for the city manager to work with billboard companies which, in exchange for putting up a large billbaord along the freeway, would take an unknown number of billboards down in neighborhoods and put up an undetermined number of public toilets in commercial areas.
“If we want public toilets in commercial centers,” said Councilmember Betty Olds, “let’s get toilets. They don’t need to be tied to billboards on the highway.”
“Why pollute our view of the Bay?” asked Councilmember Diane Woolley, the most outspoken opponent of such a plan.
“There is no such thing as a free public toilet,” quipped Councilmember Kriss Worthington. Councilmembers Worthington, Spring, Linda Maio, Margaret Breland and Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek voted in favor of the proposal, while the others opposed it.
Factionalism broke out in full force, after the public had left the room. Seated before four journalists, one citizen, and as many of the TV audience that could keep their eyes open, the council deliberated over the creation of sub-committees, the appointment of councilmembers to those sub-committees, the need for political balance on those subcommittees, and who would decide which items to discuss for the rest of the night.
The issue of citywide transit passes trailed off into lengthy discussions about who would eventually take credit for such a program. While Dean wanted to form a sub-committee of herself and Councilmember Polly Armstrong, Worthington contended that such a committee was politically unbalanced – both Dean and Armstrong are members of the “moderate” faction. He wanted to refer the policy making decisions to the Transportation Commission, which he said already had a sub-committee set up to deal with this issue.
This caused a row. Dean said, “ I would hope this has nothing to do with politics. This request is simply unfair and outrageous. Why does political balance always get questioned when (the moderates) want to work together on a project? No one asks about the other committees’ political composition.”
Worthington then asked to be appointed to the proposed subcommittee to balance things out. Dean balked, and Worthington then said, “This is a perfect example of how personal or political agendas are used against individuals to keep the policy making decisions in the hands of the minority. It’s absurd.”
The item was eventually referred to a subcommittee made up of the mayor, Armstrong and Maio. Voting in favor of the committee were Dean, Olds, Armstrong, Woolley, and Maio. Worthington, Shirek, and Breland voted in opposition, while Spring abstained.
At 10:55 PM, things began to break down. Shirek got up and roamed behind the council’s chairs, Woolley lost track of the roll call agenda, and the item numbers were juggled so often that nobody could really follow exactly where the meeting was headed.
Long before this, it was clear that the council would not get through the night’s proposed agenda, and the council debated, for quite a while, whether the session would end by 11 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. By that time, it was 11:05 p.m.
Worthington quickly ran through a backdoor, reasons unknown. He returned, a roll call was passed, and no one at the press table knew exactly what was going on. Then a column of suits walked in. It was 11:10 p.m. Shirek walked out. One of three remaining journalists walked out.
Dean, hands covering her face, could only listen as the items of the day dissolved into a cycle of endless procedure.
When called for comments on last night’s meeting, Dean could not be reached. Staff said she was on vacation until Friday.
But despite the success and frustration, other issues still loom in the backdrop. Basic questions, such as where the money will come from to finance new projects have yet to be answered.
“There is no money in the budget for any new projects now,” says Phil Kamlarz, Deputy City Manager. “All approved items will be put on a list and referred to the mid-year budget. The list is always longer than the budget can provide for, but what we do is create a frame work process to make decisions in context,” he says.
“Individually, almost every proposal looks good, but once it’s seen from a larger perspective, don’t always seem necessary,” says Kamlarz.