When architect Kava Massih took his drawings for a new downtown hotel to the Zoning Adjustments Board a few months ago, the board he encountered was quite different than the board he expected.
Faces he had never seen before peered back at him from across the divide. Old, familiar faces were missing.
Massih was surprised when some of the strangers began criticizing the design of his project, though it had already passed through the Design Review Committee with flying colors.
When the ZAB concluded its review by giving Massih the thumbs-down on his motel, he was more than a little peeved, especially since the massive Library Gardens project received near-universal approbation that same night.
“This motel is like an idiotic little zit compared to that,” he said at the time.
Massih’s strange experience was perhaps the result to the little-understood but, in Berkeley, near-universal practice of substitute commissioners.
If a regular member of the ZAB, or any other city commission, cannot make a regular meeting, he or she may request a “temporary leave of absence,” which may last for only one day. City councilmembers then appoint another citizen to temporarily take the regular commissioner’s spot.
Massih went back to the drawing board and redesigned the hotel. He brought the project back to the ZAB on a night that two regular members – who, he had reason to suspect, would favor the project – were present. The project passed with little controversy.
Yesterday, Massih shrugged off the episode, saying that sometimes it just comes down to luck. He said, in his experience, the practice is fairly unique to Berkeley and had its drawbacks.
“The substitutes usually don’t know as much as the permanent members,” he said.
“They’re not always the best person you want to comment on your project, because they’re not as informed. They don’t know the code as well. They become much more emotional.”
However, Massih said, even a substitute is better than an empty chair.
“You just want everyone there, so you have the best chances of getting the votes you need,” he said.
Patrick Kennedy, a local developer, explained.
“Substitutes are better than no-shows, because if you don’t have a quorum on the board, you can’t get anything done,” he said.
Kennedy added that the quantity of time Berkeley demands of its commissioners probably means that they earn an occasional break.
“Regular commissioners should be knighted, or something, for the amount of time they give,” he said.
Carrie Olson, a member of both the Design Review Committee and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, has substituted for others and has had someone sit in for her. Currently, she is taking Gene Poschman’s place on the Planning Commission while he convalesces from a recent hip operation.
“It serves the public better to have nine votes,” she said. “Developers want there to be enough board members there to vote on their project.”
Olson said she always has confidence in the people who may take her position for a night.
“I never discuss ahead of time what they’re going to hear, and they don’t always vote the way I’d vote,” she said. “But it’s important for the applicant that there’s someone there.”
Olson noted that substitute commissioners must be familiar with the matters they will hear. If one has had a public hearing, the substitute must have atttended it or listened to a recoreded version.
Like regular commissioners, substitutes must swear their allegiance to Constitutions of the United States and California, and defend them against all enemies.