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Surprise Plan to Cut City Commissions

Friday January 16, 2004

A proposed reorganization of the City of Berkeley’s 49 commissions, advisory boards, and task forces surfaced at this week’s Council Agenda Committee meeting, sparking immediate statements of alarm and concern from commissioners and councilmembers. 

In answer to a question by Councilmember Miriam Hawley about the status of a proposed plan to bring commission reports through the Agenda Committee, Assistant City Manager Arietta Chakos instead reported on a broader proposal which she said was currently being worked on by the city manager’s office. The proposal suggests eliminating some boards and commissions, consolidating others into subcommittees of what Chakos called “super commissions,” and changing the meeting schedules of some of the “non-judicial” commissions from monthly to quarterly. Chakos did not provide details of which commissions were being considered for the changes. 

Chakos, who did not return calls for this article, said during the meeting that the proposed changes would be presented to City Council at its Jan. 27 meeting as part of City Manager Phil Kamlarz’ report on budget cutting proposals. Cisco deVries, aide to Mayor Tom Bates, told the Daily Planet that he did not believe that the proposed reorganization was requested by City Council, but was initiated by the city manager’s office. 

Peace and Justice Commission member Elliot Cohen, who said he’d heard rumors about the proposal as far back as mid-December, said that the worst part of the plan would be its effect on citizen participation in Berkeley government. “At City Council, unless there is a public hearing, only 10 citizens get the right to speak, and that is decided by lottery. At non-judicial commissions, at least the ones I’ve observed and the one I sit on, anybody who wants to speak gets to speak. Commissions, therefore, are the only avenue of government in the city of Berkeley where a citizen can go before a public official and make an oral presentation and be heard. It’s the only place that it’s guaranteed to happen. By getting it heard at commission, you get the chance to have the issue put on the City Council agenda. So the ability to speak before commissions is the only way a citizen has of directly addressing city government, other than writing a letter. I think that’s an important right, and I think it’s being taken away from people.” 

Asked about the proposal following Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he thought the idea was a mistake. “Participatory democracy through the commissions is one of the things that makes Berkeley unique,” Worthington said. 

Worthington said the commission proposal sounded suspiciously like a reprise of attempts in earlier years by moderate Councilmembers to do away with some commissions by simply refusing to appoint members.  

Councilmember Dona Spring was more blunt. “I think this is an attempt to dismantle the great Berkeley commission system, and to get commissions under the thumb of the Agenda Committee,” Spring said. “They’re trying it gradually, little by little. It’s very demoralizing. In fact, we soon will be able to do away with City Council altogether, and just have the Agenda Committee rubberstamp the Mayor’s decisions. The whole thing made my blood run cold. I plan to fight it.” 

Spring said she expects the proposed reorganization will affect every commission except those that are “not secured by voter approval, such as the Police Review Commission, the Zoning Board, and the Fair Campaign Practices Commission.” 

Emily WilWilcox, chairperson of the Commission on Disability, noted that the issue of commission consolidation or elimination had not been presented to her group recently, and added that she could not see any circumstances in the near future where her commission could be eliminated or the work curtailed. “So many of our issues have not yet been integrated into other commissions and into the mind-set of many of the staff people,” Wilcox said.  

“While we have this one label—disability—in our title, the issues that come before us relate to everything else that happens in the city. It would be fair to say that if you randomly name another commission or board in the city, you would see that we have an interest in every topic that every other board is covering. When it comes to the Disaster Council, for example, there are special needs for people with disabilities where our input is important. The same thing with transportation, planning, housing, community health. Every aspect of the city is something that we have an interest in. We’re still trying to make sure that accessibility for the disabled is included as we move forward.”  

Wilcox noted the recent passage by Council of a measure to authorize wheelchair-accessible taxis as a good example. Wilcox said that “while the item sat on the Transportation Commission’s future agenda for quit a long time, we never could convince them to place it on their current agenda. I finally contacted them and told them they could take the wheelchair-accessible taxi issue off their agenda altogether, since we’d finally gotten it through City Council.” 

Another member of the controversial Peace and Justice Commission, which Councilmember Worthington believed might be one of the major targets of the reorganization, also argued against the plan.  

“One of the things that some city leaders tend to forget about when they talk about commissions is that this is hundreds of citizen volunteers doing a great deal of work, much of which would otherwise have to be done by city staff, and by the Council and the mayor,” P&J member Steve Freedkin said. “As Council and the city manager’s office think about any improvements in the commission system, they need to be very careful not to lose that benefit. Under the guise of trying to save a few dollars, they could end up costing a whole lot more. City staff would then be required to handle a lot of the issues that currently get handled by the commissions.” 

Freedkin added that downsizing P&J would be of little economic benefit to the city because the commission’s costs are “virtually nothing. Our staff person is a salaried city employee who does his work for our commission simply by working extra hours for which he doesn’t get compensated. So there’s no savings to be had by cutting back on our commission.”