It sounds like a paradox. Use bureaucrats to cut down on bureaucracy. City Manager Weldon Rucker thinks it’s possible.
The city launched its Neighborhood Services Initiative, tapping four bureaucrats to cut through red tape. Formed to deliver more efficient city services to Berkeleyites, the new Neighborhood Liaisons will reach out to neighborhoods and implement collaborative, cross-department solutions to community problems.
“Our Neighborhood Services Liaisons will mobilize results-oriented teams that cut bureaucratic red tape (and put) Public Works, Health and Human Services, Police, Fire, Finance and others, all in one room,” said Rucker.
Literally in one room in the city manager’s office.
Taj Johns, newly arrived from the Berkeley Police Department, can see the three others’ desks from her own.
“We’re all in here together,” she said. Each will cover one “quadrant” of the city, not yet assigned, fielding calls and complaints from the quadrant residents, then form teams within those quadrants to tackle the area’s problem.
In addition to Johns, Berkeley’s new Gang of 4 includes Michael Caplan and Thomas E. Myers from the Office of Economic Development, and Jennifer Yee from the Finance Department.
The four will remain there, in that room, until city offices move back into the retrofitted Civic Center Building, which is supposed to happen in mid-December. In the interim, they will undergo a “rigorous” training program.
According to Rucker, the first phase of this training will be “learning how the city functions, learning the intricacies of organization, and finding ways to coordinate services.”
The need for such a coordinating team, said Rucker, stems from the “1950s, hierarchical, bureaucratic, self-serving type of city government” currently still in use.
“Firewalls happen naturally in this model of government, and there are often situations where city services are working at cross purposes. These new liaisons will align city resources to come up with collaborative, good responses to city problems,” said Rucker.
Hand picked by the city manager, the Gang of 4 will handle “complaints and concerns from the community” and will “work as an extension of the city manager’s office,” said Rucker.
Saying he chose them based on a willingness to continue learning, good communication skills, an intense interest in working with people, and a passion to make change, Rucker lauded his appointees as “talented and hard working.”
City Councilmember Polly Armstrong applauded the changes.
“This is a city that is actually run by the city manager,” she said. “It’s easy to feel threatened, but it’s time to make a change. If it doesn’t work, there’s always the old way.”
“The city needs to rise above one-district concerns,” she said, when asked how she felt about these newcomers taking responsibility for a larger portion of the city than the smaller areas which councilmembers represent. “This liaison team can help us do that. The council will have to let go of the feeling that the district is their little fiefdom and no one else can do anything there. We councilmembers have the tendency to overlook the big picture because we’re so busy solving little problems,” she said.
“I think it has the potential to really work well,” she said.
For now, things are moving slowly.
On Thursday, the liaison members continued their tour of Berkeley, going to the fire stations and learning procedure and making contacts.
“This is ‘get acquainted time’ for us and the city departments,” newly-appointed liaison Michael Caplan said. “It’s an exciting time because there is no blue print to make this work. There’s just a set of goals and a lot of good will,” he added.
They will be supported by one staffer, but, said Caplan, “we’ll probably be out in the field most of the time anyway.”
“So far I’m just sending them out to handle incrementally larger problems, but by the time we move into the new Civic Center, they’ll be ready to go,” said Rucker.
They have quite a bit of incentive to do their jobs well. Myers will make $80,036 a year, while the others will make $72,060 annually.
“It’s a promotion for all of us,” said Caplan, who is receiving an almost $8,000 raise, “but it’s also a risk. All of us are giving up tenured positions for this ‘at will’ position. We work for the city manager now.”
A first assignment? Coming up with the best solution to the problems of racial tension and crime brewing on Russell and Oregon streets in south Berkeley.
“I’ll focus their attention on that. They’ll definitely be over there,” said Rucker.
The Gang of 4 will meet with community organizations in the area to get their input, then come up with solutions.
“At that point, they will either have a team of folks from the bureaucracy - or assemble a team - to implement a solution. As long as they are working within the context of their work, they won’t have to come to me or the City Council. They are empowered to do their jobs,” said Rucker.
As an extension of the City Manager’s Office, the new service is not designed to compete with the City Council, and will in fact work in collaboration with the council, Rucker said. In addition, their recommendations will carry the weight of the city manager’s office, which will aid in coordinating various city departments to work together.
“Currently, there isn’t any coordinating group like it,” he said.