City Should Rethink Spending: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday November 23, 2004

Last year at about this time Planet readers were discussing the merits of putting city tax increases on the March ballot, and Mayor Bates was heard to complain that all the nay saying in the press and elsewhere was preventing him from doing so. The tax m easures were put off until the November election, but the results were no more palatable to mayor, council and city staff than March results would have been. Two of the most sacred of cows, libraries and firefighters, went down with the rest. What’s the p roblem here? 

The mathematically inclined had the simplest explanation: simply too many different measures, and they couldn’t all win. There’s a certain amount of truth in that. Given the opportunity, the voters cherry-pick. They choose their favorite c it y services, and assuage their civic consciences by voting yes on those and no on the others. Without checking the precinct-by-precinct results (are they even available yet?) it’s a reasonable bet that the flatlands voted yes on libraries and no on firefig hters, and the hills did the reverse, so no measure was able to get critical mass. And for the easy voter favorite, in Berkeley and elsewhere, the schools will always win, hands down. 

Conventional wisdom among politicians therefore says it’s simple: Just put fewer measures on the ballot and the survivors will win. But it’s not really quite so easy. Which ones do you choose? The hidden problem in this scheme is that people have caught on that it’s really all about robbing Peter to pay Paul. The less t he city has to spend on whatever voters are willing to vote for, the more money left in the general fund to conduct business as usual. And if we are to take communications from some of our correspondents at face value, it’s business as usual that is annoy ing many citizens these days. Even without the conscience-salving alternatives on the ballot, these voters might decide to vote no anyhow. 

Thanks to a remarkable effort by departing City Clerk Sherry Kelly and her staff, it’s now possible for the analyti call y minded Berkeley citizen to get all the facts about pay for city employees and the union contracts which set pay rates and increase schedules on the Internet. If you’re so inclined, you can search on words relevant to your favorite service, e.g. “li brary” or “fire,” or on your particular bête noire, e.g. “planning.” A number of the city’s amateur policy wonks have done just that, analyzed the data, and circulated their conclusions to an ever-widening circle of annoyed consumers of city services. Whe n such consumers can compare their own salaries with that of the person who last dissed them at a counter somewhere in the city offices, the results are predictable. 

Natural bureaucratic tendencies would immediately suggest reducing the amount of provoca tive information available to the public. In the wake of Sherry Kelly’s departure, everyone needs to watch out that this doesn’t happen. We’ve already gotten complaints that the information flow from the much-criticized planning department has been reduced. Fo r example, one civic watcher of the Landmarks Commission, which is now under siege from the builders’ lobby, reports that LPC packets, which have always been released late Fridays for the regular Monday meetings, are now not always available at the Main Library on weekends as they have been in the past.  

Many California governments, including the City of Oakland, are starting to refuse to release employee salary data. Even Berkeley’s list doesn’t show names of employees who hold described positions. You have to know the exact titles of employees to determine their salary range, and their rank within the range to know precisely what their salary is. Unless you know, for example, that Mark Rhoades’ title is Land Use Planning Manager, you might not be aware that he makes somewhere between about $96,000 and about $108,000 a year.  

Does having salary data in wide circulation lead to defeat of ballot measures? It’s hard to be sure, but as a newspaper we have to stand for the proposition that sunshine is alway s a good thing.  

We were deeply disappointed, by the way, in the recent attempt of losing pro-tax partisans, including some who should know better, to charge that the newsletter of the venerable Council of Neighborhood Associations should be ruled a camp aign document just because it ran editorials opposing the tax increases. Shooting the messenger is the classic example of a dumb move. 

We’re still willing to explore the idea that the city of Berkeley needs more revenue. We support discussion, in our pub lic forum and others, of the right way to get it. But city mothers and fathers, especially those who have just been elected, need to take an active role in broadening the choice of alternatives, and in making sure that all voices are included in the discu ssion. If they yield to the temptation of knee-jerk agreement to yet another round of ballot measures, without changing the way the city spends its current income, they’ll be setting themselves up for yet another defeat at the polls. 


The salary list address, for the technologically savvy, is www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/hr/ 



—Becky O’Malley