The destruction of eight trees in front of the Berkeley Public Library is the most recent manifestation of a problem that plagues Berkeley government, usurps the democratic process, and shields policy decisions from public scrutiny until it is too late to effect the outcome.
When the city proposed the Public Safety Building, area residents were promised they would be consulted about the design. But misleading design plans, sneaky weekend construction and failure to seek Zoning Adjustments Board review, effectively broke that promise. After the communication tower went up there was a huge outcry. The resulting investigation, sanctioned no one, except, perhaps, Berkeley taxpayers, who are now paying to replace the structure. The tower fiasco was not, in my view, a mistake, but was instead, an arrogant miscalculation on the part of those who favored the tower and believed that although people would complain, the tower would remain.
Students of political science can study again this phenomenon of “government by broken promise” by watching to see how the Berkeley City Council handles the tree cutting incident. When idiotic plans were announced to spend two and a half million tax dollars ripping out hundreds of established trees, to replace them with new trees, it created an uproar. But since Councilmember Linda Maio favored the proposal, it couldn't be stopped. So a compromise, that included a promise relocate the eight trees, was agreed too. But last week, with no public notice, City Staff issued an order to destroy the trees.
This pattern of promising citizens and council members what they want to shut them up, and later breaking the promise, followed by spreading the blame far and wide so the people responsible can not be identified, is a routine we have seen before: The tower fiasco, the purchase of the poisoned parcel on Harrison street, and now with the order to destroy these trees.
From what I can piece together it seems project manager Sam Lee, rather then Jerry Koch, who lacked authority to make the decision, should be held responsible, but my speculation is hardly conclusive. Ultimately responsibility must rest on our elected officials. The City Council should investigate this matter by requiring testimony under oath so anyone who misleads them can be charged with perjury. The person or persons responsible should be identified and seriously sanctioned, either fired or subject to suspension without pay. If City Staff tries to protect the culprits by spreading the blame to make it difficult to determine who is responsible, then everyone involved should be sanctioned.
There is more at stake here then the fate of these trees. If disregarding legislative policy does not result in serious consequences we might as well abolish the City Council, and admit we are governed by an administrative state, where policy is decided by bureaucratic fiat, and where the voice of the people will not be heard.
Elliot Cohen worked for the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, as environmental aide to Councilmember Ruth Messinger, and practiced law in NYC before moving to Berkeley. He sits on the Peace and Justice Commission. The views expressed here are his own.