One of the City Council’s loudest and most prolific critics is seeking a seat on the legislative body she has relentlessly hounded for the past two years.
Barbara Gilbert told the Daily Planet Monday she is joining the race to replace outgoing Councilm ember Miriam Hawley in District 5. The homeowner-heavy district in the north-central part of town—beginning at Vine Street and extending to the upper Solano Avenue business district—has spawned politically moderate councilmembers since it was created in 1986.
While Gilbert is hoping to draw support from neighborhood groups who share her opposition to proposed property tax hikes, she acknowledges that she faces an uphill battle to defeat the current favorite, Zoning Adjustment Board member and local real estate agent Laurie Capitelli. A bipartisan cross-section of the council has already endorsed Capitelli. Councilmember Dona Spring is supporting the third candidate in the race, Green Party member Jesse Townley.
Gilbert, a trained social worker and paral egal who spent four years muffled in the backrooms of Berkeley politics as a policy researcher to former Mayor Shirley Dean, has exploded on the political scene after Dean’s 2002 defeat.
At times appearing as a one-woman crusade for government accountab ility and tax relief, Gilbert has shadowed the council, attending numerous public meetings, uncovering a costly city oversight, and questioning the sustainability of Berkeley’s high tax, high service government.
She has criticized Mayor Tom Bates for beh aving in an “alarming, inappropriate and arrogant manner,” for his handling last year of the council’s debate of a library tax increase, described the Rent Stabilization Board as appearing to be “a bloated relic cow from another era that is getting fatter and fatter,” claimed the council was too scared to take on city unions and was ducking the recommendations of its budget commission, and most famously, in front of the City Council, accurately charged that Developer Patrick Kennedy wasn’t paying city assessments for the Gaia Building.
Not surprisingly, Gilbert’s activism hasn’t won her many friends in City Hall. While councilmembers gave polite replies when told Gilbert was in the race, one council aide blurted, “Oh my God. God help us.”
“She’s been a critical citizen,” Councilmember Hawley said. “Often, she has a point of view that is difficult to work with because she feels the council is doing the wrong thing or not paying attention to things.”
For her part, Gilbert said the council would benefit f rom an unflinching voice of dissent.
“I don’t think we’ve had an independent voice in the city,” she said. “People have private doubts, but are afraid to say things publicly.” One of her chief contributions as a candidate, she said, would be to offer cl ear policy positions and force Capitelli to do the same. District 5 has the usual parking, traffic and Creek Ordinance issues, but few endemic ones. Gilbert and Hawley both predicted the race would be fought on citywide concerns such as the budget and dev elopment.
Gilbert opposes further university expansion and high density development on the fringes of residential neighborhoods, and wants to assess the effectiveness of the city’s economic development staff.
However, the cornerstone of her campaign an d much of her last two years in public life will be that in an era of declining public revenues, Berkeley has avoided making the tough choices necessary to preserve its social programs without overburdening middle class homeowners.
She opposes the four t ax hikes totaling $8 million in new revenue the City Council is planning to place on the November ballot. Instead she wants the city to extract further concessions from its unions, mainly to make them pay their retirement contributions.
“I’m a very pro-u nion person,” she said. “But the world has changed and the kind of contracts the city of Berkeley has agreed to are unfortunately unheard of in the real world.”
Gilbert, who chairs the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations’ budget committee, has n’t sought endorsements yet, but has won praise from neighborhood leaders for her tough stands on city finances.
“I think she’s worth supporting,” said Dean Metzger, the President of the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association. “She’s willing to spen d the time to dig up the facts. The problem is no one likes the facts she finds.”
Capitelli has already wrapped up key endorsements from across the political spectrum and raised $13,000 for the race. A partner at Berkeley’s Red Oak Realty, Capitelli said he counts among his supporters Hawley, Mayor Tom Bates, councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Linda Maio, Planning Commission Chair Harry Pollack and former District 5 candidate and noted preservationist Carrie Olson.
The endorsement he lacks—and appears ce rtain to be denied—is from Dean, the former mayor who represented District 5 from 1986 through 1994 and out-polled her rival Bates in the district in 2002.
Dean had no comment on whether she was considering a possible run for the seat or a candidate to e ndorse. However she said of Capitelli, “He has been described to me as a clone of Bates, and I tend to agree with that.”
That doesn’t mean that Dean’s endorsement is necessarily going to Gilbert. Talk around City Hall is that the two have had a falling o ut since 2002. Asked about the reported rift, Gilbert wondered if her independent leap into partisan city politics had rubbed Dean the wrong way.
“I do have strong opinions and I had not consulted her,” Gilbert said. “She may be miffed.”
Dean, who conf irmed that the two discussed the race several months back, said she agreed with Gilbert about some things, but not everything.
Rounding out the announced candidates for District 5 is Disaster Council member Jesse Townley.
Townley works as the board sec retary of punk rock venue 924 Gilman Street, and is the former executive director of Easy Does It, a nonprofit that provides assistance and transportation for disabled residents. At 33 years-old, Townley, who has lived in Berkeley for 15 years, casts himself as someone who can work towards common sense solutions to the city’s problems and bring more young non-student voters into Berkeley political life.
“I think people are excited that someone from the activist political art scene is running,” he said. In addition to Spring, Townley said he has won the endorsement of the Alameda County Green Party and is courting Health Commission member and former District 5 candidate Tom Kelly.