Page One

City Council’s Tuesday straw vote illuminated

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet editor
Friday April 27, 2001

Berkeley Lite is an occasional column on fighting back against those who’d like to shine us on.  


We know about the proverbial straw man. Not real; someone or something set up to deflect attention.  

And a straw vote: a way to count yeas and nays, while not truly voting. 

Our own City Council held a straw vote at its meeting Tuesday night. 

Councilmember Polly Armstrong said the vote was to save hard-working people from waiting all evening on wooden council chairs to talk about something the council was bound to pass anyway. 

At issue was an item on Tuesday’s laundry list of issues maybe to be discussed – the council often refers to the list as an “agenda” – there was the question of approving a resolution on Community Development Block Grants. CDBG money is federal funds that support community organizations. 

The city’s pitifully small council chambers was overflowing that night with people who had come to the meeting for a variety of reasons – the issue of compassionate treatment of homeless sleeping outdoors, a San Pablo Avenue development, an Oxford Street development, Housing Authority questions, the CDBG grant funds and more. 

In its wisdom, and after an almost unanimous vote to do so (the turkey in the straw voting against the motion was the ever-oppositional Councilmember Kriss Worthington) the council took the straw vote and provisionally approved the city manager’s recommendations on the CDBG funding. (The real vote, they decided later, would take place at a specially scheduled meeting Thursday.) 

While Armstrong argued that the council almost always passes the manager’s annual recommendation, so it wasn’t necessary for speakers on that question to stay and address the council, Worthington countered that it was “outrageous” for the council to express its opinion before listening to the public at the scheduled public hearing. 

Democracy is indeed unwieldy. But Worthington’s point is well taken – let the people have a true voice. 


Speaking of the public’s right to butt into officialdom, Berkeley Lite wanted to ask the Berkeley police about an incident observed a couple of weeks ago. Why were a couple of the city’s finest stationed in an unmarked car outside San Pablo Park training binoculars on a large group of Sunday picnickers? Why not send undercover folks into the park if they wanted to see the people hiding the Easter eggs or munching chicken up close? If they were afraid of trouble brewing among the large number of picnickers, why wouldn’t they send in those friendly-looking guys with cute legs and bikes - the guys who seem to know just how to chat it up with a crowd and at the same time remind them, in a friendly way, to keep in order? 

We tried to ask the police these questions. 

Calling Chief Dash Butler’s office for a response, Berkeley Lite learned he was on vacation. And for the record, we should say to the top cop’s credit that, especially of late, he has regularly returned the Daily Planet’s calls.  

A staffer referred us to the police public information officer, who, it turned out, was also on vacation, so we called the officer taking his place. Several times. No call back.  

So we’ve got no answer for our questions. 

Neither reporters nor the public should have to scale walls to get public information.  

Here’s another example of access denied: A few weeks ago a reporter tried to find out how many accidents had occurred over the last few years at the intersection where a young woman had been run over by a cement truck while crossing the street. 

The interim traffic engineer told the Daily Planet he was not authorized to talk to the press. The police at the traffic bureau said they were similarly unauthorized and that the only spokesperson was the cops’ public information officer. It took five hours and half a dozen calls to reach the PIO. And then he referred the reporter back to the cops’ traffic bureau. By that time, the person who could have retrieved the computerized data had gone home. 


So now we’re waiting patiently for a proposed Sunshine Ordinance - a law to expand the public’s access to public information – to actually wend its way to council action.  

A month or so ago, Armstrong had pulled the resolution off the consent calendar, where items are passed unanimously and without discussion. She said she needed to learn more about whether the bottleneck for the free flow of information is city staff or if legislation is the key to opening up city government. 

We believe stronger laws are needed to close loopholes in the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law.  

Still, Armstrong has a point. The real deal has less to do with legislation than attitude. Do city bureaucrats want the public to know what’s going on and have the ability to participate in government? Does the City Council have the will to make sure the bureaucrats make maneuvering the halls of city government facile both for those who are familiar with bureaucracies and for those less familiar with the complexities of city government? 


And now for a little gossip that could scarcely pass for public information. What would you think about having a poet for our next assemblymember? We’ve been told that today people are meeting with UC Professor and poet June Jordan to encourage her to make a run for the office. Just think, AB632928: “Owed to the price gaugers...” in iambic pentameter. 

Still, perhaps the idea of Jordan’s candidacy is just another straw man. Or woman.