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Council Action Moves Ballot Measures Forward

Friday April 30, 2004

On a night when Berkeley City Councilmembers deliberated a host of potential November ballot measures to shore up a $10 million budget deficit, council action made it likely that two other electoral choices will come before city voters this November.  

Despite some opposition voiced during debate, the council voted unanimously to have staff prepare language and a legal analysis of a proposed ballot measure to publicly finance elections in Berkeley. 

And to the tune of repeated hoots and hollers from medical cannabis demonstrators stationed outside the doors of Old City Hall, the council rejected a proposal to increase the number of marijuana plants licensed patients can grow. Medical cannabis advocates had threatened to take their cause to the voters if council did not pass the measure. 

The council also debated, but took no action, on four proposed property tax hikes that would raise a combined $4.2 million to preserve and improve services slated for cuts in the upcoming budget.  

At the request of City Manager Phil Kamlarz, the council held over—until next week—debate on a Transportation Commission recommendation on how to allocate $3.6 million in transit mitigations from the construction of a new downtown campus for Vista College. 

The council also announced at Tuesday’s meeting that at a special session the day before, Kamlarz was assigned the job of city manager. Kamlarz had been named acting city manager for a six-month mutual trial period in November when former City Manager Weldon Rucker retired. 


Campaign Finance Reform 

Despite some skeptics in its ranks, the council voted unanimously to have staff present them with a proposed ballot measure that would make Berkeley the first city in the country to fully finance its elections with public money. 

The current proposal, amended by the council Tuesday night, is nearly identical to a plan jointly devised for Berkeley by the Center for Government Studies at UCLA and Common Cause. Campaign finance reform advocates are planning to put that proposal on the November ballot if the City Council doesn’t act first.  

The council is planning a final vote on the measure for June 8, one week before the campaign reform advocates are required to submit the requisite number of signatures for their ballot initiative. 

Both plans would require candidates to prove their viability by submitting a required number of $5 donations—500 to qualify for mayor, for example. Under the plans, qualifying candidates would then be eligible for city campaign funds on the condition they adhere to spending limits. Candidates could opt out of the system, but if they exceed the city spending limits, their publicly-funded opponents would be eligible for more funding to make up the difference.  

Candidates for mayor would receive $150,000 in public campaign monies and council candidates $20,000, with more available in the case of a run-off. 

The Center for Government Studies estimated the cost of implementing the campaign finance proposal between $1.4 and $4 million. Expenses would be capped so that they would not rise above two-tenths of the city’s budget, said Sam Ferguson of the Berkeley Fair Election Coalition, the chief local proponents of campaign finance reform. Money would come from the general fund. Neither proposal included a tax hike to pay for it. 

The council proposal would give councilmembers additional power to suspend the campaign finance program by a two-thirds vote in the event of a budget shortfall. Also the council proposal would exclude rent board commissioners from public financing, but still include the mayor, City Council, city auditor and school board. 

Though the differences between the proposals are few, Mayor Bates argued the alternative to a council designed ballot measure was “much worse.” 

Still some councilmembers questioned the wisdom going forward with any initiative at all. 

Miriam Hawley doubted that voters would approve anything that would increase costs and added that public money didn’t necessarily translate into an even playing field. “The influence of money is overrated,” she said. Hawley added that endorsements from key interest groups and public officials were often more valuable than campaign funds.  

Wozniak, who spent $73,000 in 2002 on his runoff election, said he could support public financing but thought the spending limits laid out in the plan were too low. “You’re putting on an artificial cap that has nothing to do with reality,” he said. Wozniak fears that if caps are set too low, incumbents with higher name recognition would be the beneficiaries. 

Mayor Bates, who spent over $200,000 on his 2002 campaign, argued that once costs were fixed, candidates could keep expenses down since they wouldn’t have to worry that their opponents would outspend them. 


Budget Measures 

The council kept all of its options open, and even considered a couple of new ones, on proposed measures that would raise taxes to preserve city services in the face of a $10 million budget gap. The four proposals presented to them at a Tuesday work session—all of which included property tax increases—included $1 million to fund paramedics and emergency services, $1.2 million for the public library, $1 million for a clean water program, and $1 million to restore youth services threatened by budget cuts. The council has until July 13 to vote on which measures to take to the voters. 

The $1 million tax to fund emergency services appeared to have the widest support among councilmembers. Mayor Bates asked city staff to consider increasing the tax by $200,000 to guarantee that the first responding fire company to an emergency would be equipped to provide paramedic service. 

Jackie Griffin, Berkeley’s Director of Library Services, warned council that $1.2 million would be enough to preserve service on evenings and Sundays this year, but the library would likely have to ask for more to safeguard services in the future. Griffin said a new tax would also be likely to pay to get city librarians into elementary school libraries during after-school programs. Councilmember Wozniak questioned why a tax increase was needed one year after the city bumped up library revenue and asked for an analysis by the library board why a tax hike was necessary. 

On youth services, Mayor Bates called for the measure to be financed by a half-cent increase in the property transfer tax to pay for city-run after school programs, crossing guards and school-based police. Such a funding scheme would distinguish the measure from the school district’s planned November measure to increase property taxes. 

Councilmember Betty Olds urged that the measure only include vital programs so as not to be too expensive and turn off voters. Olds also called for splitting the proposed clean storm water measure into one measure that would fund storm drain repair and maintenance and a second measure that would clean up creek water and possibly provide money for daylighting Berkeley creeks. 

Wozniak urged the city staff to study possible taxes that wouldn’t fall solely on homeowners. He expressed interest in raising the Utility Users Tax and possibly reconsidering a tax on residents with multiple automobiles. 

In addition, City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque told the council that a proposed $2 million to $3 million surcharge for 911 service for telephone landlines and cellular phones might require voter approval. Originally the council considered the surcharge as a fee, which would only require a council majority for passage, but the passage of Proposition 218 raises legal concerns, according to Assistant City Manager Arrietta Chakos in an interview after the council meeting. Chakos said Albuquerque is scheduled to report back to the council on May 18 on the matter. 


Medical Marijuana 

By a vote of 5-1-3 (Wozniak, Olds, Hawley, Shirek, Breland, yes, Bates, Spring, no, Maio, Worthington, abstain), the council voted to table a bill that would have upped Berkeley’s limit from 10 marijuana plants to 72—the number of plants permitted in Oakland.  

Medical cannabis advocates said they planned to push forward with a November ballot initiative that would erase any limit on plant cultivation and place the city in charge of marijuana distribution in the event of a federal crackdown.  

“We’ll be happy to have voters educate the City Council on this,” said James Blair of the Cannabis Buyer’s Network (CBCB) after the council vote. If passed by a majority of voters, the proposed initiative would give Berkeley the most lenient medical cannabis law in the state.  

Blair and other supporters of less restrictive cultivation rules said the 10-plant limit Berkeley codified in 2001 was too low for patients to grow an adequate supply for their medicinal needs and forced many to break the rule. Since Berkeley is densely populated and outdoor plants are only permissible in secluded areas, they argued most cultivation is done indoors, where plants grow smaller and the yield is less.  

In addition to supplying their own needs, patients also stock Berkeley’s three retail cannabis clubs, which sell the marijuana at a 40-45 percent markup, Don Duncan, director of the Berkeley Patients Group told the council. He said patients were able to supply the club because many broke the 10-plant rule and others lived in cities that allowed more plants. Duncan added that the price markup paid for the expenses of running the cannabis clubs and was not taken as profit. 

Police Chief Roy Meisner warned the council that raising the limit to 72 plants would increase both the opportunity for patients to profit from their harvest and the likelihood of violent crime. He said 72 plants could produce 18 pounds of marijuana, which would have a street value of $90,000.  

“That’s a lot of money and a lot of temptation,” Meisner said. He added that Berkeley police detectives linked two murders last year to marijuana, and recently police broke up an armed robbery, finding the resident beaten and bound and three armed assailants carrying duffle bags packed with marijuana and $69,200 in cash. 

The fear of increased crime weighed heavily for the five councilmembers who opposed an increase in plant cultivation, but what apparently sunk the proposal was a separate dispute over Blair’s Cannabis Buyers Network plan to move to a building in a crime-ridden section of Sacramento Street in Council District Two, represented by Councilmember Margaret Breland. 

In 2001 Breland was one of four councilmembers to support a proposal allowing patients to grow 144 plants, but Tuesday she changed her tune. 

“Why do we have to keep sticking [cannabis clubs] down in District Two?” she asked. “I wish people who really want it would take it up to their district.” 

Amid staunch neighborhood opposition, Blair’s group will soon go before the Zoning Adjustment Board for a use permit to move its operations to Sacramento Street from its current home at Longhaul, an anarchist resources center and bookshop, at Shattuck Avenue and Woolsey Street. The owner of that building is displacing tenants for a planned construction project to build top floor apartment units.  

Breland also echoed the concerns of Councilmember Maudelle Shirek that more marijuana in Berkeley would result in more young African Americans getting arrested on drug charges. “We’re the ones always getting in trouble because we’re used to being out on the street,” she said. “This is one of the reasons I’m against drugs because all they have to do is find a little bit, no matter how much it is, and we are going to jail.” 

Councilmember Worthington argued that by raising cultivation limits fewer poor people of any race would be at risk of prosecution, and Councilmember Spring said the council’s focus should be on helping people to “ease their pain.” But Breland—considered by medical cannabis advocates as the swing vote on the issue—remained steadfast. 

“You can survive without marijuana,” said Breland who has battled breast cancer recently. “I have pain medication, I have prayer, I have faith, and I am strong. So don’t give me that about you need the marijuana to survive.” 


Community Development Block Grants 

As directed by the council last week, city staff found an extra $15,000 in funding for the Center for the Education of Infant Deaf. The extra money increases the nonprofit’s funding to $25,000, with a promise that it will be the first to receive additional funding if another recipient is disqualified. The organization had request $50,000 to enable it to utilize a separate federal grant to open an audiology suite that would guarantee timely diagnostic screenings to its infant patients.