Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday April 15, 2005

Next week’s Berkeley City Council agenda contains a proposal from City Manager Phil Kamlarz, generated at the City Council’s behest, for cost-cutting by cutting down on a large percentage of Berkeley’s commission meetings. For example, he recommends that the Commission on Disabilities should meet only quarterly, instead of monthly, and that the Public Works Commission should meet only every other month. If adopted, this proposal would cause a dramatic change in Berkeley’s long and proud tradition of citizen participation in government.  

And how much money would this save? The report tallies the fiscal impacts of the recommendation as “saving staffing costs equivalent to two FTE positions.” No dollar figure is given, but for humor let’s just say that the staff positions eliminated are in the $100,000-plus category, a level enjoyed by more than 150 City of Berkeley staffers when benefits and overtime are factored in. And then let’s double that to account for overhead. Saved? A maximum of $400,000, and that’s if (a big if) the positions cut are at this top level. More likely, the staff time saved is not in the high price brackets, but in the $60K ranks, where savings would net out to around $300,000, or less than it costs to buy any house in Berkeley these days.  

The proposal is a classic example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Many of the volunteers who serve on city commissions, on their own time and without compensation, are better educated and better versed in their subject matter than city employees at any pay level, or than the average councilmember. The city benefits hugely from their contributions. 

Take the Public Works Commission as an example. The city staff and/or elected officials were ready to give away—free—the air rights for the University of California’s much-desired bridge over Hearst Street, until Public Works commissioners with legal training, on their own time and with no help from city legal staff, did legal research which showed that city ordinances regarding encroachment on city streets provide the city with a strong bargaining position vis à vis UC. If a deal can be made, this might easily translate into compensatory payments from UC to the city approaching the $300,000 which would be saved by axing commission meetings. (Some citizens, of course, would prefer no bridge at all, and their position is also bolstered by the research done by Public Works commissioners.) And that’s just one case. 

Jonathan Schell, in the April 25 issue of The Nation, has a chilling discussion of how the concept of civil society, which he calls “the international movement for democracy that brought down several dozen dictatorships of every possible description” is now threatened by what he calls “a shadow civil society”--a kind of false democracy which is starting to “merge … imperceptibly with the real one.” He calls out the fake “town meetings” staged for Bush as cases in point.  

At the local level, citizen participation in government is constantly at risk from similar impulses. Officials, both hired and elected, are all too ready to tell citizens in “town meetings” that “we feel your pain” without actually swerving in any way from their pre-conceived agenda. Ever-cynical observers have suggested that city staffers and some councilmembers have gleefully seized on budget problems as a good excuse for getting rid of a major source of irritation, mouthy commissions which don’t know their place. We won’t comment on this theory, except to say that it’s conceivable. 

But we do know that the current commission system allows about 400 Berkeleyans to participate in the process of governance at any one time, with a much larger number taking part in a five or 10-year period To give up the huge benefits to the civic culture and the civic pocketbook which this participation provides, in return for only two FTEs in financial savings, would, in the Biblical phrase, be trading our birthright for a mess of pottage. There are other ways for the city to save three or four hundred thousand dollars.