Sending a Message to Officialdom:By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday October 12, 2004

We have been deluged with calls and letters from proponents of various measures which will confront voters on the November ballot, at a time when most voters, including us, are preoccupied with the job of getting rid of George Bush. As I am writing this, I’ve been interrupted, at home, by a call from an old acquaintance who wants me to endorse Measure B.  

Proponents of ballot measures fall into various camps. First, there are the direct beneficiaries, those whose pay will come out of the proceeds. Berkeley measures J and K, increases to the utility tax and the property transfer tax, have received two thirds of their financial support so far from unions representing city workers such as Service Employees International Union Local 535. Then there are the indirect beneficiaries, for example some parents of children in the Berkeley Public Schools, who are working on behalf of Measure B, and users of medical marijuana, who support Measure R. Finally, there are the public-spirited citizens whose support of ballot measures is based on their perception, right or wrong, of what’s good for the city, without any personal benefit to themselves, like the supporters of Measure S, which aims to protect Berkeley’s publicly owned trees. Of course, there are also altruistic supporters of most ballot measures in addition to the interested parties.  

Here at the Planet, we haven’t finally decided how we’re going to vote on these measures ourselves, let alone deciding which ones we support or oppose strongly enough to share our recommendations with our readers. Here’s the big ethical problem which confronts us as voters when it comes to funding measures: Is it fair (or wise) to vote against taxes just because you think the current money is not being well-spent? 

The reason Berkeley has a record number of funding measures on our ballot is that our leaders have figured out a cute dodge to put a human face on tax increases. We’re not voting for raising taxes to support the general fund, we’re voting for libraries, paramedics and youth services. Measure N reauthorizes a group of similar special taxes, including one for the parks department. But the hook in this attractive bait (who’s against youth?) is that such schemes simply take the designated service out of the general fund allocations, thus freeing up more money to be spent elsewhere, perhaps unwisely.  

Consider the plight of the citizen who believes, for example, that the Economic Development Department has been responsible for dumb moves like axing the popular local Edy’s Ice Cream Parlor in favor of the soon-departed Eddie Bauer chain store. Where does she or he go to express this opinion? Elected officials? Forget it. Previous Mayor Dean was behind the Eddie Bauer debacle. Current Mayor Bates, theoretically supported by a different faction, has been involved with packing the Planning, Landmarks and Zoning Commissions with development hacks who want similar mistakes in West Berkeley and elsewhere. The temptation to vote to curtail this kind of institutionalized stupidity by cutting off funding is strong. And those who see through the “special tax” dodge are inclined just to vote no on everything, since the Economic Development Department will never come up as a direct vote.  

And yet, and yet, the city does need to have enough money to provide critical public services, and times are tough. But are public employees doing what the public really needs, or simply collecting ample paychecks and generous pensions? Citizens who interact with city employees on a regular basis have opinions on this topic, and they seem to be increasingly negative. Just try building a deck, for example. Several hundred public-spirited citizens serve on city commissions at any given point in time, where they have the opportunity to observe up close what’s not working. They write letters to the Planet about what they experience, and these letters are not enthusiastic. (That’s undoubtedly why city bureaucrats issue regular reports recommending abolition of commissions.)  

Some parents who volunteer in the public schools are shocked at the way funds are used, and they’re also not coy about expressing their opinions: witness recent controversies about landscaping at Willard Middle School. Other parents may think that everything’s not perfect, but the schools still need the money.  

If you don’t think that the city should donate Derby Street to BUSD to build a ball field for varsity athletes, should you vote against funding measures, and if so, for city or school district? It’s confusing. 

That’s why Measure S is attractive. Many citizens have tangled with city staff over what appears to be cavalier treatment of trees in public spaces. (Some years ago, bad pruning of Berkeley street trees was actually the subject of a photo essay in Pacific Horticulture Magazine.) Instead of urging voters to reject Measure N (which includes re-upping the parks tax) Measure S supporters have put together a carefully crafted measure which aims to solve the problem instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water. It’s moderate in scope, not nearly as comprehensive as the heritage tree ordinances in similar cities like Santa Cruz and Palo Alto, but strong enough to send a message to the city-paid custodians of our arboreal treasures that they should be doing a better job with their public funds. And of course, anyone who approves of how our public trees have been treated can vote against it. 

Would that all decisions were so simple. Most of the time, all we voters can do is vote candidates and tax measures up or down. Voting against taxes is strong medicine, which should be reserved for the direst cases.  

It’s no secret that many owners of single family homes, especially in the flats, feel massively dissed by Berkeley’s planning department, which seems to them to have been loading the dice in favor of big developers of fancy apartment complexes which end up, yes, in their backyards. But is voting no on J and K the right solution? Some recently formed organizations want to convince voters that this is indeed the remedy, and they’ve expressed this opinion in these pages and elsewhere. A few city council candidates (okay, maybe two or three so far) have come out against city planners’ mindless advocacy of excessive density. If more candidates had the courage to follow their example and take positions on controversial topics (and to keep their campaign promises), Berkeleyans would be less tempted to vote no on the taxes which might actually be needed to support essential city services.