Governing Berkeley by Questionnaire and Fiat By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday April 12, 2005

“There’s no action tonight,” said City Manager Phil Kamlarz as he introduced the Berkeley City Council’s March 8 work session on business revenue and the budget. “It’s really just informational and a discussion.”  

But by the end of the meeting, staff had been asked to undertake a major policy initiative—rezoning Gilman Street and Ashby Avenue west of San Pablo Avenue out of manufacturing and into retail. There was no discussion of the proposal, much less a vote. Instead, there was a not-so-subtle directive from Mayor Bates.  

Addressing the stated theme of the evening—how to increase business revenues to make up for the $8 million–$10 million shortfall the city faces in 2006-10?—the mayor asked, “Where are some assets that are not being fully utilized?” His answer, in part: They’re on Ashby and Gilman between the freeway and San Pablo, areas that are now zoned for light industry.  

In the mayor’s mind, American industry is history. “We can no longer sit back and say we have to have manufacturing here, when manufacturing is closing,” he opined. “They’re going offshore….I told people [of these views] when I was running for office, and they voted for me.”  

Really? Where in his campaign did Tom Bates allude to de-industrialization or West Berkeley industry? Not on his campaign website (still online at www/tombates.org/issues) or in his campaign literature (on file at the Berkeley Public Library).  

Shades of our nation’s current president and his own fantasied mandates for things he never mentioned when he was running for office!  

And just as George W. Bush’s imperious rule has been countenanced by the generally feckless Democrats in Congress, so Tom Bates’ peremptory style of governance has been abetted by a generally tranquilized City Council. The mayor constantly trumpets his “victory over bickering.” But what he’s failed to achieve—indeed, what he’s actively suppressed—is the sort of substantial public deliberation essential to democratic policymaking.  

On March 8, after having made clear what he wanted, Mayor Bates concluded by coyly “asking [staff] what we should do.” City Manager Kamlarz took the cue: “I think we have some consensus about what to do, especially in West Berkeley.”  

Consensus among whom, exactly? Nobody but the mayor had said anything about Gilman and Ashby.  

The only councilmember who’d even referred to West Berkeley was Betty Olds. Concerned that the city’s remaining, sales-tax rich auto dealers might follow McKevitt Volvo and leave town, Councilmember Olds had asked whether light manufacturing zoning might prevent a car dealer from relocating to Frontage Road. (The mayor had mentioned another site, the Berkeley Unified School District property at 6th and Gilman—the same spot, he didn’t say, once coveted by the Animal Shelter for its voter-funded, still-unbuilt new facility).  

That was the full extent of City Council commentary on West Berkeley—hardly a basis for taking action, especially at a “work session” where no action was supposed to be taken.  

Nevertheless, on March 31, Planning Director Dan Marks informed the West Berkeley Redevelopment PAC that at the council’s regular April 19 meeting he will present strategies for incrementally rezoning West Berkeley, starting with Gilman and Ashby. He subsequently told me that he was acting at the behest of the city manager. Mr. Marks’ memo to the PAC cited “the Council’s recent ‘vote’ about its FY 06 priorities.” The planning director had the wit to enclose the word vote in quotation marks; he was referring to the results of a poll that staff had administered to the City Council and the mayor.  

If the council is going to decide Berkeley’s future by filling out questionnaires, its members might as well stay at home and just mail in their surveys, let staff tabulate the results and then do the mayor’s bidding—which is very nearly how the city’s priorities for Fiscal Year 2006 are being set.  

Policymaking by polls and mayoral fiat is particularly offensive with respect to land use in West Berkeley, whose zoning came out of an intensive public planning process that involved scores of people for nearly a decade. The result was the West Berkeley Plan, unanimously approved by the council in 1993. Thanks to the plan, our town still has an industrial district, with the lowest vacancy rate (1.7 percent) in the East Bay, the highest rents and several hundred manufacturers, wholesalers, artists and artisans, including Scharffen Berger Chocolate, Inkworks, Urban Ore, Alliance Graphics, Pyramid Brewery, Sun Light & Power, Meyer Sound and Berkeley Mills. Tom Bates’ city website reports that just last Friday (a month after he declared that “manufacturing is closing”), the mayor joined other officials in announcing that Bayer is moving its Biological Products Global Headquarters from North Carolina to Berkeley, even as the company has begun construction of a new, $50 million Clinical Manufacturing Facility at its Berkeley campus.  

Before city officials begin to dismantle the zoning that supports Berkeley’s industrial sector, they need to remind themselves that the purpose of government is to benefit the community, not the other way around.  

They need to stop using the city’s fiscal problems as an excuse to destroy the qualities that make Berkeley a special place to live and work. Their top priority ought to be reining in municipal expenses. At the same time, keeping auto dealers and their $1.5 million revenue in town should be high on the agenda, with relocation to Frontage Road one possibility.  

That possibility, like all others, including rezoning west Gilman and Ashby for retail, needs to be vetted in a manner befitting Berkeley’s official commitment to democratic process. The mayor and the City Council could use a work session on the Citizen Participation Element of the city’s new General Plan—the sooner, the better.  



Zelda Bronstein, former chair of the City Planning Commission, is still active in Berkeley politics.