EDITORIAL Fighting Cal with a Rubber Banana By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday May 13, 2005

One more time, at the risk of becoming a tedious scold, the Berkeley Daily Planet wants to go on record on behalf of the public interest in demanding that those who run the government of the City of Berkeley (manager, staff, attorneys, mayor, councilmembers….?) make full public disclosure regarding any deals they’re making with the University of California before they take the final vote on such deals. Oh, and we don’t mean in the Friday release of a Tuesday agenda. We mean long enough in advance of the vote that the public, including the press, has time to investigate the details of the deal and comment on their ramifications. It’s a cliché that the devil is in the details, but the average voter/reader might not appreciate how deeply the bad details can be buried in the public process. 

An example: Do you think your sewer fees are too high, and are you annoyed that they’re going up? Have you experienced one of the many recent failures in Berkeley’s collapsing sewer system, perhaps sewage overflowing in your very own basement? Do you realize just how much each and every property owner and renter in Berkeley is subsidizing the use of sewer services by UC’s huge and ever-growing population of students and employees?  

Well, if you’re not right on top of all this … stuff…, then perhaps you missed out on what seemed to be minor adjustments to the sewer fee proposal which the council adopted at its April 26 meeting. You’re not alone if you did: the Daily Planet missed them too, but eagle-eyed council watchers figured it out and tipped us off afterwards. 

Pay attention, now. This is arcane, and it’s tricky. The agenda released before the council meeting reported proposed language which was carried over from an earlier meeting and which was based on a report from the Public Works Commission derived from recommendations made by consultants who tracked the way other cities charge University of California campuses for services. Here’s the original: 

“Public agencies as defined in Government Code Section. 54999.1.(c) shall pay a sewer service charge based on each hundred cubic feet of water use per each residential or non-residential water account as defined in subsections A and B above at the rates established by City Council resolution in accordance with Gov Code Sec. 54999.3.” 

Seems plausible, even straightforward, right? They use the water, they pay the fees accordingly. 

But here’s the con—watch carefully. At the very last minute, a supplemental report was produced by city staff which changed the charging mechanism. If you look at the published summary of the meeting results, you’ll find it way down at the end. They added this language to the above: 

“…provided that the City Council may also by resolution permit alternative methods for payment of sewer service charges or other compensation in lieu thereof.” 

Did the council discuss this change? Are you kidding? Councilmember Wozniak (one of the council’s UC retirees) asked that it be moved to the consent calendar, and it passed without comment. Only Councilmember Worthington, who generally knows what deals are going down but feels powerless to stop them, voted no. It was his no vote, however, that tipped off the vigilant council watchers.  

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can now deduce that the umbrella UC deal was already in the works, and that this language change was the set-up for one of the major concessions, that slippery “compensation in lieu thereof.” In other words, a complacent council may, and probably will, vote once again to take some pitiful crumbs from the UC table in return for UC’s tremendous usage of the city’s services, subsidized by local taxpayers.  

Now then, let’s connect the dots. The rumors the Planet printed in the last issue, which we believe to be true, say that faceless negotiators on behalf of the city have already agreed to drop their threat to bill the city for several million dollars for all city services, including sewers.  

What did they get in return? A trifling increase in UC’s “compensation in lieu thereof”: a few hundred thousand dollars to be added to its disgraceful half-million or so in current free-will offerings. That’s supposed to cover everything, not just sewers. And local taxpayers will continue to subsidize the rest, at a price estimated by consultants at close to $11 million overall.  

The negotiations with UC, including the lawsuit challenging UC’s environmental impact report on its future development plans, were announced by the mayor’s public relations apparatus with great fanfare, and swallowed whole hog by the corporate media. Now that it’s clear that those faceless negotiators, whoever they are, are getting ready to take a dive. They have managed to turn Teddy Roosevelt’s famous slogan on its head. Instead of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” it’s now “roar fiercely and carry a rubber banana.” It will be interesting to see if the corporate press notices what’s going down. (Bless their hearts, the kids at the Daily Cal do seem to be on the case.)