Commentary: The UC-City Settlement: An Angry Rebuttal By DEAN METZGER and DAVID WILSON

Friday June 10, 2005

The Bates/Maio/Capitelli/Anderson article of last Friday defending the private settlement between Berkeley and the University of California is profoundly misleading. Instead of opening a “new era of cooperation,” the agreement effectively gives the Regents an effective veto over development in the downtown area. At the same time it gives the city no voice whatsoever in the university’s expansion plans.  

The Background: One of the root causes of Berkeley’s financial problems is the long-standing exemption of non-profit groups, chief among them UC, from city taxes and fees. This issue got new attention some months ago, when the university announced its “Long Range Development Plan.” The LRDP promised an increased student body, more employees, and more buildings. It seemed like a slap in the face: hadn’t university officials for years seemed to sympathize with concerns that further growth would stretch city services to the breaking point? Wasn’t it true that the university already represents about forty per cent of our daytime population, but contributes virtually nothing to support the fire, police, sewer and other services it uses?  

The Lawsuit: The city tried to negotiate, but UC wouldn’t budge. The city with great hoopla sued the university. The complaint seemed to promise relief…until you took the time to read it. There was nothing about crumbling infrastructure, and very little about traffic. There were vague charges that the university had violated California’s Environmental Quality Act, but nothing precise on which a judge could act. There was no demand for money damages, and no request for an injunction. The whole thing, one had to suspect, was either the result of gross legal incompetence, or a paper tiger, designed to make the electorate think it was being protected, even while its leaders were preparing to surrender on whatever terms they could get. 

The Settlement: And surrender they did. The “settlement” is nothing of the sort: all of the old issues are still there. The university has promised virtually nothing, while the city has surrendered all of the legal weapons that it was brandishing so bravely a few weeks ago. For example: 

The mayor talks about the promised “cooperation” between town and gown on future planning issues. But while it is true that there is a lot of soothing language about “mutual goals,” and promises “to respect the unique social and cultural character of downtown,” it is all just talk. There is not a single, legally enforceable commitment by UC to mitigate any of the troubling aspects of the Long Range Development Plan. On the contrary the city has accepted the document without a single change, and has agreed—in advance—that UC will not be required against its will to mitigate any of the impacts of the LRDP over the next fifteen years. All of our concerns remain—traffic, population densities, and the need for tens of millions to repair the infrastructure that is so heavily impacted by the University. 

More frightening is the language about the “DAP” or Downtown Area Plan. A careful reading shows that the university will have a veto power over virtually all planning decisions in the downtown area from now to 2020. In fact, there is a provision that the DAP will not even be released for public discussion until the university has agreed on all major issues. 

The mayor and council majority point to UC’s agreement to pay $1,200,000 per year to the city. But read the fine print: $250,000 is to be taken off the top to fund the DAP process. Another $500,000 or so is in lieu of fees that the university already pays, or would have to pay anyway even if there were no settlement. In other words, the city will get about $450,000 in new money to defray the $13 million in estimated direct costs of city services provided to the University of California. For this pittance, the city has given up any and all rights it has under California law to get more money, or to object in any way to UC plans through the year 2020. 

Indeed the Agreement has a classic “poison pill”: if the city sues the university over any of the LRDP projects, the city must pay the university’s attorneys fees. 

Bates, Maio, and the others say that they will continue to push for changes in state law which would require UC to pay more to support the services it uses. But the Agreement says—very clearly—that if there is any such change in the law the University will not have to pay any more than the $1,200,000 already agreed to. 

While the Bates article is misleading, the ultimate result is far more troubling. The mayor and current council majority have surrendered the city’s last, best chance to sort out problems that have bedeviled it for decades, and have gotten virtually nothing in return. And with such a gap between the city’s press releases and the actual text of the documents, we have got to conclude that either the majority failed to read the document they approved, or that their lawyers failed properly to explain it. In other words, we are dealing with either legal or political malpractice, and perhaps with both. ?