Column: The Public Eye: What’s the Matter with Berkeley? By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday June 21, 2005

Still reeling from the news of the City Council majority’s secret sell-out to the university, I opened the June 20 Nation and read that Berkeley is part of an “urban archipelago” of “progressive cities in a conservative sea.” According to John Nichols’ cover story, progressive agendas, blocked at the federal and state levels, are being advanced in municipal venues around the country. 

The locales Nichols has in mind are “major metropolitan centers, aging industrial cities and college towns.” For example, Lawrence, Kansas, (population 88,000). On April 5, when 70 percent of the statewide electorate voted to make same-sex marriage illegal in Kansas, “progressives swept every open post in Lawrence,” including the mayor’s office. 

New mayor Dennis Highberger has gotten Lawrence to officially condemn the Patriot Act. But, Nichols hastens to add, Highberger spends most of his time on “mundane municipal issues like funding library services,…buying new land for park space.” With the support of “Progressive Lawrence—a local group that two years ago wrested power from more conservative, pro-development forces,” Highberger and other officials “have focused on implementing ’smart growth’ strategies to prevent sprawl, working with local employees to improve delivery of services and promoting tolerance in a state where that can be controversial.” 

Closer to home, in Irvine, former mayor, now councilmember, Larry Agran “and his progressive allies have developed pioneering programs in childcare, affordable housing, recycling and open-space preservation, most notably undoing plans by developers to turn a former Marine Corps base into an international airport.” Stretching from the mountains to the Pacific, the ex-base will become the largest metropolitan park (7,400 acres) in the nation. 

Other cities have passed living-wage laws and instituted publicly financed elections. One hundred thirty-four mayors have agreed to pursue at the local level the Kyoto Protocol’s goal of reducing greenhouse emissions. And two nationwide organizations have sprung up to support progressives at the local level—Cities for Progress, which will seek to influence national policy through the joint efforts of communities and local officials, and the New Cities conference of mayors. 

Berkeley gets only a nod in Nichols’ story. The first New Cities meeting, in February, he writes, “drew mayors from Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Berkeley and nine other cities.” That’s it. 

But what else would you expect? Progressive Lawrence and Irvine are newsworthy; progressive Berkeley rates a yawn. Ever since the Free Speech Movement coalesced in Sproul Plaza 40 years ago, this town has symbolized cutting edge liberalism to the world at large. 

The question is, does Berkeley still deserve its reputation as a liberal bastion? 

The answer may not be obvious. Last November Berkeley gave John Kerry the highest percentage of votes (90 percent) of any city with a majority of white residents, and the third highest (coming behind Detroit at 94 percent and Gary at 92 percent) of any city, period. 

At the same time, Berkeley voters turned down four city tax measures. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial writers saw the defeat of municipal taxes here and elsewhere in the Bay Area as “conservative strains” in our deep blue bailiwick. 

As far as Berkeley is concerned, that’s a superficial reading. I’m somebody whom the Daily Planet once characterized, fairly or not, as “a member of Berkeley’s progressive establishment.” Last fall I voted with the majority against city taxes. I wasn’t voting against “guvmint” or against new taxes per se (I voted for the school tax, again with the majority). I was voting against the particular government that’s currently installed in City Hall. I wanted to send a message to Mayor Bates and City Manager Kamlarz: I don’t like the way you’re running this town. I know many other Berkeleyans who call themselves progressives who did the same thing for the same reason. 

Even before the Bates-led debacle of the UC settlement, it had become clear that the electoral gesture of no-confidence didn’t get across. Since last November, actions undertaken by the mayor and City Council in concert with city staff and/or city commissioners—the mind-boggling reconfiguration of Marin Avenue; the approval of Jeremy’s admittedly illegal expansion on College Avenue; the approval of the nine-story Seagate project on Center, which violated the city’s General Plan, Downtown Core zoning ordinance and affordable housing laws; the insidious attacks on the West Berkeley Plan; the pathetic community budget process—all indicated that the leadership at City Hall had actually become more high-handed than ever. 

Now, the council majority’s capitulation to the university leaves no doubt about what Tom Bates and his allies stand for: closed government, secret deals, deregulated development, pandering to power and spin spin spin. 

The worst thing about the settlement with UC is that it cuts citizens out of the planning process and effectively gives the Regents veto power over downtown Berkeley’s future (See Section II of the settlement at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ 

mayor/PR/UCAgreement.pdf). The school’s charter from the state already exempts it from municipal land use laws. It was unconscionable for the mayor and council to surrender the city’s control over non-UC development in downtown as well. It may also be illegal. 

Today, Berkeley is a city of progressives governed by men and women who have scant respect for a principle that progressives, i.e., democrats with a small d, hold dear: people should have a meaningful say in the decisions that affect their lives. How ironic—and painful—that at a time when progressive politics are gaining momentum in cities around the country, Berkeley has moved in the opposite direction. 

In November 2006 Tom Bates will be up for re-election. So will two of the five councilmembers who okayed the UC deal, Linda Maio and Gordon Wozniak. Between then and now, the paramount task is to see to it that next time we elect a mayor and councilmembers who will govern in accordance with Berkeley’s proudly democratic history and character.