Under intense public pressure, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to request that UC release it from a confidentiality agreement that has kept settlement talks over a town-gown legal dispute out of the public view.
The council is requesting that the university allow it to publicly disclose the terms of a final settlement before both the city and the UC Board of Regents approve it.
Although councilmembers have said that a deal is imminent, they did not announce that a final settlement had been reached at Tuesday’s closed door meeting.
In February Berkeley sued UC over a 15-year development plan that it argued lacked sufficient detail and would spark a building boom without city oversight or effective measures to lessen the effects of the growing campus on surrounding neighborhoods.
A deal would not only settle the lawsuit, but could also lay the framework for city-university relations through 2020. A key point of contention, especially with the city facing mounting budget deficits, is how much the university, which claims an exemption from local taxes and fees, should pay for municipal services like fire and sewers.
City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said after the vote Tuesday that she would immediately convey the council’s request to UC’s attorney. However, she said that the university had already rejected an informal request to waive the agreement.
UC attorneys declined to return phone calls for this story.
With rumors circulating that under the proposed settlement, UC would pay the city around the $1.2 million in fees they had offered in January rather than the $3 to $5 million the city was reportedly seeking, Councilmember Dona Spring warned residents that even if the deal was made public before a vote, the terms of an agreement would not be altered by public input.
“I don’t want to give people illusions that bringing this for public comment is going to change anything,” she said.
Albuquerque said the confidentiality agreement was signed at the city’s request to prevent the university from using comments made at settlement discussions during a trial. Noting that UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau had previously revealed comments made by Mayor Tom Bates in private talks, Albuquerque said, “For that reason we wanted to ensure that all discussions would be purely confidential.”
According to Albuquerque, the agreement not only bars the council from commenting on negotiations or conversations made in private council meetings, but also prohibits it from releasing the university’s offer or any counter offer, as it would otherwise be permitted under state law.
Councilmembers seemed surprised at the restrictions placed upon them. Mayor Bates said that he was “of the view that this should be public,” and Councilmember Kriss Worthington objected on the grounds that the council had not formally voted in favor of entering into the confidentiality agreement.
When Albuquerque responded that it was discussed in closed session, Worthington accused her of violating the confidentiality rules.
“It seems you’re doing what you’re telling the city not to do, describing what happened in closed session,” he said.
Reports that the settlement might mirror UC’s public offer has increased pressure on the council to negotiate in public. “If the numbers rumored are true it doesn’t appear that we are getting a fair deal,” said Wendy Alfsen, a member of Berkelyans for a Livable University Environment.
Becky O’Malley, the Daily Planet’s executive editor, urged the council to release any proposed agreement to the public and added that legal advisors had questioned whether the confidentiality agreement was as stringent as Albuquerque interpreted it.
“I’ve never seen a confidentiality agreement that affirmatively prohibited public release before a formal vote,” said Antonio Rossmann, a law professor at Boalt Hall. He said that although it is common for public institutions to enter into a confidentiality agreement during litigation, once they feel they have a deal, “that has to be public. It would be just outrageous if the university did not allow for public review on [the deal] before it is voted on.”