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Council squabbles over task force

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 17, 2001

A City Council task force, working to increase transit ridership and reduce fares, was derailed Tuesday because of bickering between progressive and moderate council factions. 

“Just another night in the sand box,” quipped Councilmember Polly Armstrong in response to arguments she deemed petty.  

The nine-member council is dominated by the five-member progressive faction. The opposing sides have a history of bitter disagreements over issues that include parking, development and homelessness.  

Some council watchers say the most acrimonious battles appear to occur between moderate Mayor Shirley Dean and progressive Councilmember Kriss Worthington. Both were key players in the collapse of the Transit Task Force during Tuesday’s meeting. 

A confrontation erupted over a recommendation by Worthington that would have ended the term of the Transit Task Force whose goal was to put together a citywide transit pass. 

The task force was created by the council in September 2000 after six months of wrangling. The citywide pass for Berkeley residents and workers might have been patterned on the UC Berkeley Class Pass program, for which students pay a fixed $18 fee twice a year, pick up a pass and ride buses free. The program has greatly increased bus ridership among students. 

The three-person task force, which has had only two meetings since it was created, consisted of Dean, Armstrong, both moderates, and Councilmember Linda Maio, the only progressive.  

Worthington said his recommendation to terminate the task force was due to the fact that it was mandated to “exist for a short duration of a few weeks.” 

Paradoxically, Worthington argued that he and moderate Councilmember Miriam Hawley, a former director with AC Transit, should be allowed to participate on the task force because both had been involved in transit issues.  

Maio then offered a compromise. She would resign and another seat would be created on the task force. That way, both Worthington and Hawley would be members.  

Worthington was agreeable to the compromise if Hawley was made chair, which would unseat Dean, the current chairperson. Hawley refused. 

“I just think we needed the mayor’s leadership on the issues we were dealing with to make it all come together,” Hawley said on Wednesday. 

Maio then suggested that Worthington and Dean co-chair the task force. Dean refused.  

“I’m declining to share the seat because I think it would be confusing and I think it’s insulting,” said Dean, who was clearly upset by the attempted coup de main. “I have some role to play on this council whether some people like it or not.” 

Progressive Councilmember Dona Spring made another motion: to make Worthington chair of the task force. Spring’s motion passed by a 5-4 vote, right along party lines.  

The result was that the councilmember who had recommended the task force be terminated because it had outlived its mandate, was suddenly the chair of that same task force. 

Worthington was chair for only moments before Armstrong resigned, quickly followed by Dean and Hawley. 

Armstrong said she resigned for two reasons. She didn’t think the complex project would move ahead without Dean’s leadership. “She has a reputation of working hard on things and seeing them through,” she said.  

“And the other reason is that I was ashamed of the councilmembers who, I felt, were publicly humiliating the mayor, when all she was doing was trying to move the city towards an ecological transit pass.” 

Hawley said she was amazed at the political infighting over a task force that is largely non-controversial. She said both the progressives and moderates want to increase transit use. “It’s a very tricky issue and we were just beginning to tease out the details to get an idea what the cost would be,” she said. “The fact that everything has come to a halt is a great loss for the city.” 

Worthington argued the conflict between the progressives and moderates was of substance. “There are very sharp differences of opinion about who is going to pay administrative costs for the transit pass program,” he said. “Mayor Dean won’t be so inclined to have businesses pitch in. I think businesses should pay their fare share.” 

Hawley disagreed with Worthington. “Who was going to foot the bill was not even on the table yet,” she said. “We were simply exploring our options.” 

Worthington also said that if he were the only progressive on the task force and Dean were chair, he would not be able to effectively participate. 

Spring agreed that Worthington would be “out gunned” if Dean remained as chair. 

Hawley said at the end of the meeting that the task force was worth saving and that she would try to come back to the council with another compromise.