Editorial: The Dog Days in Berkeley

Becky O’Malley
Friday July 23, 2004

Now begin the City of Berkeley’s dog days. The expression derives from the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star, which takes place between early July and early September. But since it coincides with hot and humid in a large part of the northern hemisphere, the image of lazy dogs lying around in the shade comes to mind. 

Folk etymology has therefore extended “dog days” to mean any period of stagnation or inactivity, and that definition has also found its way into dictionaries.  

For newspapers which look to city government to provide copy, the departure of the City Council and some of the boards and commissions for a two-month period every summer has been a major challenge. The Berkeley City Council in particular has over the years been a reliable source of political theater, and local publications have cheerfully delivered performance reviews of their antics. But in the 14 months the new Daily Planet has been covering the Berkeley City Council, the annual departure has become less and less of a problem. That’s because the current City Council is doing less and less of the governing of the city. We’re in an era of Government Lite in Berkeley, when the majority of councilmembers have decided to go along to get along, so that when they leave town no one even notices any more. Stagnation and inactivity have become a year-round phenomenon. Last year the city clerk’s office had a party to celebrate the council’s departure, complete with Aloha decorations. We haven’t heard about one this year.  

It looks more and more like the hired professionals on the city staff are making policy instead of “the electeds” as they are sometimes called behind their backs. This is both the good news and the bad news. The city staff produced a hard-hitting critique of the University of California’s environmental impact report on its Long Range Development plan which was described by one frequent critic of city government as “surprisingly good.” It was not pre-approved by the City Council—in fact they got their first look at it the day it was sent. This caused a little grumbling by councilmembers, notably the mayor, who carried water for the university in Sacramento and is much disposed to compromise with his alma mater whenever possible. The lifers on the staff have a very clear understanding of the budgetary problems they’ll face in the next few years, and they’re thoroughly tired of the university’s addiction to consuming city resources without paying for them, so they tore into the transparently weak EIR. When it comes to the bottom line, they know what they’re doing. 

On the other hand, some critics, notably Barbara Gilbert, who is now running for City Council in District 5, have accused the staff of being too easy on their own: of looking for remedies to budget shortfalls almost anywhere except in salary cuts for city employees. This promises to be as close to a major campaign issue as we’re likely to get in the new bland Berkeley, but it’s possible that most voters won’t even notice it. One of the publishers’ trade publications which we acquired with this paper ran a survey suggesting that a lot of readers of a lot of papers don’t follow government news anymore because they don’t think they can have any influence over what government does. If that’s true, it’s sad, and it might well be.  

Just in case we have a few readers who still enjoy politics, we’re going to provide coverage of the Democratic Convention in Boston for your amusement during the dog days while the council is away. We have not one but two correspondents: Chris Krohn, the former mayor of Santa Cruz and long-time left activist, and Bob Burnett, one of the founding executives at Cisco Systems, who is a major donor to the Democratic Party. They’re going to try to cover the event inside (probably Bob) and outside (probably Chris). The problem, of course, is that it appears that the Democratic National Committee has engineered the convention to be just as bland as the Berkeley City Council, so we can’t promise you any drama. But if it happens, we’ll be there. 

The Republican Convention is another matter entirely. We don’t really know any Republicans who could cover it for us. We do know a pair of rowdy middle-aged women who should know better who threaten to go to New York and make noise in the streets, and we hope to get them to send us dispatches from that front. If anyone else from around here is going, please let us know.  


—Becky O’Malley