Departing Planning Director Carol Barrett gets the Harry Truman Award for this week. Truman, you may recall, said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” and that’s exactly what Barrett is doing.
She’s going back to the wide open spaces of Texas whence she came, with a few parting shots at the hot disputes over planning policy which are a Berkeley tradition. In Berkeley, unlike much of the rest of the country, we take our coffee hot, strong and somewhat bitter, and we tend to take our planning discussions the same way.
San Marcos, Texas, is certainly a different kind of place from Berkeley. Its city government Web page spotlights a picture of a hometown soldier serving in Iraq. In Texas, there’s room for planners to really plan up a storm. About 40,000 people in San Marcos are trying to spread out over more than 18 square miles. (In Berkeley, we’ve already packed at least 110,000 into 12 square miles.) Undoubtedly, mouthy citizens don’t need to get in the way of professionals when it comes to making planning decisions.
Some people in Berkeley now seem to think that kind of deference is a model to be imitated. Recently, even in these pages, such people have been advancing civic politesse codes, derived in part from Amitai Etzioni’s quasi-religious communitarian ideology, which peaked around 1984. City Council has authorized the city manager to conduct an investigation into commissioners’ manners, with a report due in September. A League of Women Voters team of “observers” has been making the rounds of commission meetings to check up on deportment. A councilmember’s aide has circulated an e-mail calling for a purge of dissident commissioners, and many already have been replaced. The mayor boasts of City Council meetings which are over by 9:15 p.m., with civic strife swept tidily under the rug. Only the churlish Winston Smiths among us object.
This model for civic governance is usually accompanied by Only-in-Berkeley-ism. That’s the sub-sect of communitarianism which believes that Berkeley is the only place where citizens talk back to staff in such an annoying way. Believers in this theory, presumably, have never lived in Ann Arbor, Cambridge, Santa Cruz, Bloomington, Santa Barbara, Madison, Davis or any of the many other places with a high concentration of well-educated articulate inhabitants. (They also don’t watch the British House of Commons on late-night cable.)
The Berkeley Planning Commission, to take one arbitrary example, has two professors, at least one lawyer and assorted other Ph.D.s among its nine members, and it shows. Admittedly, it’s rough for a city department head to hear from one of the professors that he’d give a C+ to a staff report as presented. On the other hand, putting up with that kind of intellectual critique has always been part of the job description for staffers in university towns, and it always will be. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It would be dishonest for an expert citizen commissioner who spots holes in staff data to keep quiet for fear of offending.
Harry Truman, though no intellectual himself, didn’t suffer fools gladly either. Many who worked with or for him felt the sting of his caustic tongue. Those who could put up with him stayed on, and even enjoyed the challenge. Others left. That’s why Barrett gets the Truman Award. She couldn’t stand the heat of Berkeley’s intellectual stew, so she’s leaving, to her credit. In a small town in Texas she’ll get some respect.
Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Planet, a Landmark Preservation Commissioner, a member of the ACLU since 1959 and a registered Democrat.