Down At the Alligator’s Ball: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday September 17, 2004

A week or so ago the Planet received an invitation to a fundraiser for realtor Laurie Capitelli, who’s running for Berkeley City Council in District 5. It had been re-sealed and re-addressed to us, which seemed odd, and when we opened it a little slip of paper fell out with an anonymous typed note: “The Developers’ Ball? They are urging a vote for their pro-development candidate. Interesting cast of endorsers.” 

As a card-carrying grandmother and former English major, I instantly grasped the literary allusion. Berkeley author Thacher Hurd has a book for the 4 to 8 set which, with wonderful pictures, tells the story of how Miles Possum and his band of little swamp critters are invited to play for the Alligators’ Ball. After the music stops, the alligators are hungry. “What’s for dinner?” says Miles. “Something tender! Something juicy!” says an alligator, holding a menu behind his back that features “Swamp Band Soup.” On the next page, “the alligators snapped their jaws and snapped their lips” as they drag the struggling band members ever closer to a big boiling pot. 

A look at the invitation solidified the reference. The venue was the office of former legislator and now lobbyist and consultant Dion Aroner, with co-hosts Mayor Bates and Assemblywoman Hancock. The other co-hosts were key players in Berkeley’s fat and sassy development industry: Norheim and Yost, commercial real estate brokers; Memar Properties, the new commercial vehicle for former non-profit developer Ali Kashani; Trachtenberg & Associates, architects; Hudson McDonald LLC, the new favored recipient of funding from powerhouse financier David Teece, also a funder of Patrick Kennedy; Miriam Ng, another real estate broker, and Richard Hill and David Early, decision-makers for the Livable Berkeley pro-development lobbying organization. Mm-hmm. Looks like Berkeley’s headed for the soup for sure.  

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for starters Capitelli is still a member of the Zoning Adjustment Board, where several of these players could be expected to ask approval for project proposals in the near future. If he’s elected to City Council, he will probably be reviewing some decisions on their development projects. It’s not illegal, mind you. A California court decision has established the right of city councilmembers and commissioners to adjudicate cases involving their campaign contributors. But still, it smells fishy. 

The glossy handout in the envelope, listing more supporters, was not reassuring. Capitelli is endorsed by the quartet of developer-friendly planning commissioners who have been roundly criticized by neighborhood groups, Stoloff, Pollack, Perry and Tabb, as well as by an assortment of lesser lights in the development firmament (along with some innocent bystanders). Our anonymous correspondent is right, an interesting cast.  

He is not endorsed by any of the planning commissioners from the faction formerly known as progressive. He is not endorsed, as far I was able to recognize names, by any leaders in the non-factional effort to put some brakes on the no-holds-barred Berkeley building boom which has produced big ugly buildings and vacant storefronts all over town in the last few years.  

All of this does not mean Capitelli is not a nice guy. He is. And the Swamp Band in the book (Mama Don’t Allow, Harper Collins Publishers, soon to be a major musical by Berkeley composer Julie Shearer) does eventually escape the soup by playing one last lullaby which puts the alligators to sleep. But that’s a fable with a happy ending, concocted for kids. In real life politics, a truer tale is that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.  

It’s early days in the City Council race. There’s still time for candidates to make it perfectly clear to voters where they stand on development issues, and other issues too. The Planet is doing our part by offering all of them a sizable hunk of our commentary section in the month of October to make everything perfectly clear. They’ve been invited to submit pieces of 600-800 words by Oct. 1, which will be run in rotation during the month. Readers have their part to play: We’re also going to run a “Questions” column on our letters page for the rest of September. You can submit short questions or challenges for the candidates, which they may or may not choose to answer in their October commentaries. And of course we do sell ads, for candidates who want even more room to explain themselves and list their supporters. 

Even though Capitelli and some of the other candidates look like they’re up to their ears in alligators at this juncture, Berkeley might still escape the soup pot. We’ll see what lullabies would-be councilmembers can come up with before the election.