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City Council Listens a Lot But Doesn’t Do Much

Friday October 17, 2003

Critics of former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean used to say that under her chairmanship, Berkeley City Council meetings used to bog down under the endless partisan bickering until the late hours of the night. 

At Mayor Tom Bates’ Council there’s been a lessening of partisan bickering. Some have begun to charge that the Mayor’s attempts to reorganize and streamline the Council process has led to a lessening of public debate on important issues as well. 

And while Bates’ Council meetings end earlier than Dean’s, they also often begin two hours earlier with a working session, so the end result may be a statistical wash. 

Last Tuesday night, Council set aside all of the scheduled one-and-a-half hours of its 5 p.m. public working session to discuss four proposed ballot measures. One would be a property tax increase bond referendum to shore up the $10 million of the projected $15 million structural deficit beginning with next year’s city’s budget, while the other three are proposed city charter amendments that would substantially alter the way candidates are elected in the city. 

In order for them to appear on the March, 2004 ballot, Council must agree to sponsor the proposed measures—with exact ballot language included—by the end of November. 

But discussion of the actual content of the proposed measures got short shrift at the working session. Instead, Council took more than half of its time listening to reports. 

First a slide show presentation from pollster David Binder—who conducted last month’s Berkeley voter survey to gauge support for a bond measure—explaining how the results of the survey pointed to the possible passage of a bond referendum. 

Then a report from former Assemblymember Dion Aroner—who chaired the mayor’s Revenue Task Force—explaining why the task force came to recommend the property tax bond measure as the best way to plug the budget gap. 

Then, finally, a second slide show report—this time from City Clerk Sherry Kelly—explaining the variables of changing the present four-week runoff schedule for Berkeley elections. 

That left little time for Council questions, and almost no discussion of the other two proposed electoral ballot measures: adopting Instant Runoff Voting and changing the cost and other requirements for candidates to run for Berkeley elections. 

There was no public comment about the ballot measure proposals, which were released to the public in preliminary form last week. 

All of the proposed ballot measures are scheduled to be the subject of next week’s 5 p.m. Council public working session. That leaves little time for public input before Council must take a final vote on the matter Nov. 25. That is the deadline for measures to be put on the March, 2004 ballot. Council is not scheduled to meet on Oct. 28 or Nov. 11. 

Council was a little more productive at its regular 7 p.m. session Tuesday. It took up two issues of intense interest to wheelchair-bound Berkeley residents, moving forward on recommendations to bolster sidewalk and street safety issues in the wake of the recent automobile accident death of disabled activist Fred Lupke, but putting off a decision to issue city permits specifically for wheelchair-approved taxis. 

Lupke was hit while riding in his wheelchair on the side of Ashby Avenue last Sept. 18, reportedly after he was forced into the street because his wheelchair could not navigate a sidewalk default. He died a week later. 

After hearing emotional testimony from Councilmember Dona Spring—also wheelchair-bound—and from members of the city’s Disability Commission, Council voted to take several actions to improve wheelchair safety on the city’s streets, including replacing and widening the sidewalks on the north side of Ashby between MLK and Ellis where Lupke was killed, pressuring Caltrans to make other pedestrian safety improvements along Ashby, and conducting a study to see what improvements the city can do itself. 

The Council resolution said that the situation on Ashby Avenue “currently poses a very dangerous threat to the lives of disabled people.” 

Representatives of the city’s disabled community were considerably less satisfied with Council’s decision to delay a request from both the Commission on Disability and Commission on Aging to issue 10 permits specifically for taxis equipped with the capability of carrying wheelchair-riding passengers. No such taxis currently operate in Berkeley. Council referred the request to the city manager’s office, with instructions to come back with recommendations at its Nov. 25 meeting. 

After the meeting, the chairperson of the Disability Commission, Emily Wilcox, expressed “disappointment” at the delay, and explained that Berkeley’s disabled community had been working on the wheelchair-accessible taxi plan for several years. “We’ve been paring down our request over time so that we could get something passed,” she said. 

Wilcox also said that the city’s disabled community doesn’t have the ability to mobilize large numbers of wheelchair-bound citizens to come to a Council meeting to show their concern “because many of them don’t have any way to get to Council meeting; that’s why the taxis are needed.” 

The newest member of the Disability Commission, Ed Gold, said he once had to push his wheelchair-bound daughter five miles through Berkeley because his van got towed downtown and he was not going to a destination near a bus route. Wilcox declined further statement, but said that she would “certainly have something to say” after the city manager’s report comes back in a month and a half. 

Council also passed, without debate, the first reading of a measure making it a misdemeanor to steal newspapers from racks in the city. Council also agreed to move forward with the Precautionary Principle, a model for making proactive, environmentally-sensitive decisions in city purchasing, contracting, and other activities. City staff was directed to come back in a year with a draft ordinance and purchasing policy to implement the principle.