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Election may result in shift in council power

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Saturday November 04, 2000

As the booming economy drives home prices through redwood roof decks and developers dream of stately skyscrapers lining the city’s thoroughfares; while dot-comers search in vain for office space and fast-food operators pressure city officials for the right to ply their trade in town, the numbers of homeless and helpless on our streets doesn’t seem to diminish and the divisions in health and education outcomes between minorities who populate the flatlands and Caucasians living in the hills grows ever more stark. 

It is in this context that Berkeley residents will go to the polls Tuesday to select among 16 candidates for four council seats.  

What will it mean for the city, if the more moderate faction on the council, led by Mayor Shirley Dean, becomes the majority? 

“It’s a very exciting prospect,” Dean said, not so much for ideological reasons, than simply being able to get things done on the council. 

“I do not want Shirley Dean’s shadow,” the mayor said. 

Dean argued that in no way would she expect, or even want the candidates she’s endorsing – Mim Hawley, running for the District 5 seat, Betty Hicks, running for District 2 and District 6 incumbent Betty Olds – to walk lock-step behind her. 

However, those she is endorsing for the council “would be open to listening,” Dean said. The people she is supporting are individuals who would not claim, because of district elections and district representation, that they represent downtown or Telegraph Avenue or the South Berkeley commercial district. 

“These are citywide issues,” Dean said, arguing that the current council has reflected a parochial district-by district view and that is, in part, the source of friction among them. 

To adequately address upcoming issues – in particular, the selection of a permanent city manager and redistricting according to the new census figures – “we will need a united council,” Dean said. 

Although the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce does not take positions on council candidates, Reid Edwards, who chairs the Chamber board, sees distinct differences between having a Dean-led majority on the council or the current progressive-liberal majority. 

The moderates would focus more on the city’s economic development, Edwards said. They would “allow for more dot.comers to move into West Berkeley.” Zoning regulations now restrict them. 

They would also be supportive of streamlining the decision-making process on questions of development. “It takes months to get a decision,” he said. 

Parking is another big concern, Edwards said. “As Betty Olds said, she is not able to ride a bike.” 

The liberal-progressive faction has repeatedly favored spending city funds on projects other than parking, both downtown and in the Fourth Street area. 

Edwards added that he would like to see a council that demonstrates a greater understanding of the role of business in bringing revenues into the city: in addition to creating jobs for local residents, business taxes go directly into the city’s general fund. They are spent on council-determined projects. 

Naturally, Linda Olivenbaum, who co-chairs the liberal-progressive Berkeley Citizens Action, sees things quite differently. 

She said she fears that a moderate majority would mean “a shift away from the traditional values Berkeley citizens live by, values people move here for – especially economic, racial, ethnic diversity.” 

She points to the liberal-progressive faction’s emphasis on affordable housing and health care, and its attention to south and southwest Berkeley. 

Unlike Dean, Olivenbaum says the divisions among councilmembers are rooted in philosophical differences.  

“A lot of the factionalism on the council is not personal,” she said. “It has been a battle to maintain these types of values – we don’t want to become a Palo Alto.” 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington agrees that the council differences are based in a difference of values. 

“The single biggest issue is housing,” said Worthington, pointing to the millions of dollars the liberal-progressive faction has placed in the city budget for affordable housing. 

There are also environmental issues, he said, pointing to the liberal-progressives’ insistence that neighborhoods cannot opt out of street cleaning. The cleaning removes the dirt and toxins which would otherwise end up in the bay. “All the progressives stood up to the heat,” on this issue, Worthington said. 

Like Reid, Worthington points to parking as a critical issue. The progressive majority blocked $3 million in redevelopment funds, which others wanted to go to building a garage that would serve Fourth Street businesses, he said, calling the proposal a “$3 million give away.” 

“If Shirley Dean had the majority, we would have lost that vote,” Worthington said. 

Downtown parking will be on the council agenda in the coming months, Worthington said, with a battle waged over the parking lot at Oxford Street and Allston Way. The fight, he said, will be between those who want more parking on the site and those who want to develop low-income housing there. A Dean-led majority will go for parking, he asserted.