Page One

Council Postpones Ballot Measure Vote to Tweak Descriptions

Friday July 16, 2004

With the deadline for submitting ballot initiatives to the county fast approaching, the City Council Tuesday chose to take one last look at the wording of three controversial measures. 

In other matters the council approved new procedures for how it and some commissions handle ex parte communications, created 16 parking spaces for city parking enforcement officers, offered new money for a costly affordable housing project, and held off discussing UC’s proposed footbridge over Hearst Avenue until the fall. 

The ballot initiatives would expand the rights of medical marijuana growers and distributors, make prostitution Berkeley’s lowest police priority and establish a Tree Board to regulate public trees. 

A council majority opposes all three measures, but city law leaves them only two options: Approve the measures or place them on the ballot. 

On Tuesday, the council had already sent the medical marijuana and prostitution measures to the voters—and was set to do the same for the tree act—when City Manager Phil Kamlarz alerted them that they can amend the short description of the initiatives voters see on their touchscreen voting machines. 

“Oh, we can?” said Mayor Tom Bates.  

Within a minute the council had rescinded its votes on the cannabis and prostitution initiatives and formed a subcommittee, comprised of Bates and Councilmembers Linda Maio, Dona Spring and Gordon Wozniak, to report back to the council next week, when the council must place the items on the ballot. 

The cannabis initiative would erase Berkeley’s 10-plant limit for patients licensed to cultivate medical marijuana, establish a peer review committee to oversee the city’s marijuana clubs and grant by-right use permits for clubs in commercial zones. The measure on prostitution would require the City Council to lobby Sacramento to decriminalize prostitution, but according to police wouldn’t reduce the number of stings targeting prostitutes and johns even though it would make prostitution the city’s lowest police priority. 

The tree ordinance would give a Tree Board power to prevent the removal of public trees except in certain circumstances, as well as license contractors engaged in public tree work. 

Presumably the subcommittee will examine ways to ensure that the council’s concerns are highlighted on the ballot titles, Councilmember Kriss Worthington said.  

A majority of councilmembers are concerned that the marijuana measure would deprive city control over pot clubs and increase crime, that the prostitution measure would attract more sex workers and johns, and that the Tree Board would create a costly new layer of bureaucracy. 

Worthington is demanding that the subcommittee provide public notice of its meeting, so citizens are aware of its deliberations. However, Cisco DeVries, an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, said that because of tight schedules as the council approaches its final meeting next week before the summer recess, the subcommittee might just e-mail suggested ballot title changes to the city attorney. 

At any point before the election, the council can vote to support or oppose the initiatives, though it can’t spend money on a campaign. 

Robyn Few, director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and sponsor of the prostitution measure, dubbed the Angel Initiative, wasn’t surprised by the council’s action. 

“They’ve been giving us a tough time from the day we started,” she said. “We’ve had to fight for everything we’ve gotten.” 

The current ballot titles appear to already spell out the issues most councilmembers find objectionable. The title for the marijuana initiative, for instance, specifies that the act would grant by-right development for clubs and the tree act title shows an annual cost of $250,000 as written in the city attorney’s analysis that will be sent to all voters. 

Tree Act author Elliot Cohen, along with councilmembers Spring and Worthington, contend the cost estimate and the analysis is faulty. City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said she will meet with staff members who assembled the city’s impact report on the initiative to address their concerns. 


Foothill Bridge 

With the city’s staff report arriving just as councilmembers sat down at their chairs Tuesday evening, the council voted to hold off a vote on the controversial Foothill Bridge until after the summer recess.  

UC Berkeley is asking for an encroachment waiver from the city to suspend a bridge 21 feet over Hearst Avenue to connect two dormitories, and has signaled its willingness to pay $200,000 in mitigations and give the city final say over the bridge’s design. 

But opponents argue the bridge would be one more university encroachment into neighborhoods, and wouldn’t achieve the university’s stated goal of providing access to wheelchair-using students at the Foothill housing complex. 


Ex Parte Communications 

In response to concerns from residents and developers, the City Council unanimously loosened restrictions on communications with interested parties to developments that city boards must ultimately approve or reject.  

Previously, to safeguard due process rights, members of the City Council, the Planning Commission, the Zoning Adjustment Board, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Housing Advisory Commission were all forbidden from so much as overhearing conversations about pending projects which members could later vote on as a quasi-judicial body. 

Opponents charged the system gave preferential treatment to developers and fostered a climate of mistrust. 

Under the new rules, councilmembers and commissioners will be able to discuss issues with concerned parties so long as those public officials disclose those contacts and the gist of the conversations prior to the public hearing. 


Parking Spaces for Parking Enforcement Officers 

After public transportation advocates vehemently opposed a plan to create 21 parking spaces for city parking enforcement officers last January, the council approved a compromise plan by a vote of 7-2 (Worthington, Spring no) .  

The city will designate 16 parking spaces on the east side of Martin Luther King Jr. Way next to the Ashby BART station for parking officers. The spaces, currently off limits to all cars, will be available to residents at nighttime and on weekends. 

The compromise rescinds the earlier proposal that—in addition to the 16 spaces on MLK— would have given them five parking spaces on Fairview Street. 

Parking enforcement officers have traditionally received free city parking at a lot at Fairview and Harper Street, but that option disappeared recently after the lot’s owner transformed the lot into an apartment complex. 

Providing parking will improve morale and free up residential parking spaces where the officials now park, according to the city report approved by Police Chief Roy Meisner. 

Charles Moore, the only resident to comment on the compromise plan, called it “an outrageous perk.” 


Jubilee Senior Housing 

The City Council voted 8-0-1 (Wozniak abstain) to grant an extra $450,000 to the planned 27-unit Jubilee Senior Homes at 2577 San Pablo Avenue. Delays and rising construction costs have caused the price of the complex to climb from $4.2 million to $6.8 million, 40 percent of which will come from the city’s housing trust fund. 

With the new funding, the city’s subsidy is now at $100,000 per unit, roughly double the average subsidy. 

“This will be the most expensive project per unit we’ve ever done,” said Housing Director Steve Barton. 

The new funding is contingent on an expected grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If the grant doesn’t come through, the city can force Jubilee to sell the property, valued at $350,000 to help compensate the city for its losses..›