Editorial: Weak Mayor, Open Policy

Becky O'Malley
Friday January 30, 2004

Tom Bates’ unsuccessful attempt to sabotage the Planning Commission task force on the university’s proposed hotel, which he himself had requested only two months earlier, was unfortunately all too typical of his political style. He can’t seem to remember that Berkeley’s form of government is a weak mayor model—he’s supposed to be not much more than a councilmember-at-large, with some ceremonial responsibilities, including chairing the council meetings, and a bigger staff. He might try to get the local voters to change that, following the lead of the two Big Bad Browns who became mayors of neighboring cities after serving in Sacramento. But at this point few would say that the Brown experiments worked very well for Oakland or San Francisco, so Bates’ chances of becoming a strong mayor don’t look good. 

He obviously loves the picture of himself going mano-a-mano with the Big U, where he once quarterbacked a Rose Bowl football team. In his letter to the Planning Commission’s committee on the hotel proposal, he said that: “The city and the university are currently engaged in negotiations about the entitlement process. No agreement has been reached on who will serve as lead agency and what the exact permitting process will look like. I believe this proposal preempts those negotiations and may greatly complicate the eventual decision-making process.” 

The problem with this is, he’s not The City. He’s only the weak mayor. The City of Berkeley, in all its majesty, is the citizens, speaking through their representatives on the council and on the commissions (which, by the way, Bates and friends seem to be trying to undermine, but that’s another story.) The mayor doesn’t seem to understand how the commission system works, as evidenced by his worry in his letter that the task force proposal “does not address questions about the role of the Zoning Adjustments Board and the Design Review Committee in reviewing the project.” He wonders “how would discrepancies between design recommendations of the task force and the DRC/ ZAB be handled?” 

In a nutshell, the Planning Commission examines policy questions and makes recommendations to the council, which then enacts ordinances, which are subsequently administered by the city staff, with variance requests adjudicated by the Zoning Adjustment Board, which in turn gets non-binding advice from its Design Review Committee. There’s absolutely no reason for Bates and university planners to feel threatened by hearing the Planning Commission’s proposed policy recommendations, if what they want is consistent with citizens’ perceptions of the public good. But that’s a big If. 

Will the public interest be better served by secret negotiations with Tom Bates as point person? Michael Rossman recently digressed in these pages about how the California Schools for the Deaf and Blind were suckered out of what’s now the Clark Kerr Campus. His piece reminded old-timers that Bates and his wife Loni Hancock, then mayor of Berkeley, brokered that bad deal. The University of California took terrible advantage of both the school and its neighbors.  

The reason for making policy in open process is that you get better policy that way, especially in the City of Berkeley, where an unusual number of smart and well-informed citizens volunteer their services on bodies like the Planning Commission. Massive public building projects like sports stadiums and hotel-conference centers have, historically, often been good for developers but bad for localities. If the open public meetings of the planning commission task force turn out to pre-empt Bates’ currently secret negotiations, as he fears, maybe it’s better that way. The services of sharp-eyed public watchdogs like those on our planning commission will go a long way to ensure that this mega-project will be good for Berkeley, not just for UC Berkeley. Mayor Bates should appreciate their expert help in getting a good and fair deal for the city.  

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.