Column: The Public Eye: Commission Reform: High-Toned Rhetoric, Low-Down Motives By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday July 05, 2005

Citizen participation in Berkeley public life is under attack. Some of the assaults are blatant—most egregiously, the secret settlement with UC that the City Council approved on a 6-3 vote on May 25. The deal cuts citizens out of planning for downtown Berkeley, while effectively giving the Regents a veto over the future of our city center.  

There are also more insidious offensives, such as the proposal to limit service on city commissions slated for the council’s July 12 agenda. Submitted by Councilmembers Capitelli, Moore and Wozniak, this item would both strictly enforce the city’s strange eight-year limit on commission appointments and forbid individuals to serve on more than one commission at a time. It would take effect on Dec. 1, with retroactive impact on commissioners already serving.  

A little background: In Berkeley, the mayor and the eight councilmembers each get an appointment to the city’s boards and commissions, except the Rent Board, which is elected. In other, less democratic places, city commissioners are all appointed by the mayor or have to be approved by a majority vote of the council. Berkeley commissioners are all volunteers.  

On the face of it, the Capitelli-Moore-Wozniak proposal may appear to bolster participatory democracy. Certainly that’s the impression its three sponsors seek to give. Under the heading “Maximize Opportunities for Citizens to Serve on a Commission or Board,” they assert that the proposed limits “will ensure that commissions are regularly revitalized with new people and new points of view, and will help to increase the number of residents who can participate in our government.”  

You might suppose, then, that many Berkeley commissioners have served well over eight years and/or sit on two or more commissions. Actually, the number of individuals who would be affected by the strict enforcement of the eight-year rule is miniscule—only 13 out of 350, or 3.7 percent of all current appointees. Moreover, after the first year of a commissioner’s service, councilmembers have the right to replace their appointees whenever they please.  

In fact, the high-toned rhetoric masks the low-down motive of the proposal’s makers: suppressing commissioners whose perspectives and priorities differ from theirs. To be precise, suppressing other councilmembers’ appointees whom they find objectionable. (None of the proposal’s three sponsors, two of whom have been on the council only seven months, now have commissioners who will be affected by the proposed new limits.)  

Councilmember Capitelli let the cat out of the bag during the council’s initial discussion of commission matters on May 17. “The longer we stay on [a] commission,” he said, “the more weight that we carry, and I don’t mean physical weight. Sometimes we tend to dominate environments and discourage participation by other citizens.”  

“We?” Anybody who’s familiar with Berkeley politics knows that the primary antecedent of Capitelli’s shifty first person plural pronoun is Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman.  

Now why would Councilmember Capitelli and his colleagues Wozniak and Moore want to off Commissioner Poschman?  

Well, Gene Poschman knows more about zoning and land use in Berkeley than anybody else in town, including the staff of the Planning Department; works harder than any other commissioner I know of; and uses his exceptional knowledge and energy to defend democratic process and legal propriety.  

In today’s Berkeley, that means that he advocates for neighborhoods and ordinary citizens who are contending with the bigger-is-better/the-zoning-ordinance-be-damned development that’s championed by the city’s planning staff. Not incidentally, such development is also championed by Councilmembers Capitelli, Moore and Wozniak, who regularly support projects that violate Berkeley’s zoning laws, yet come to the council with enthusiastic recommendations from city staff.  

If the council is serious about making commission service more attractive, it should foster a culture of integrity and accountability in City Hall. Excluding seasoned and knowledgeable citizens from the pool of volunteers only strengthens the hand of city staff and powerful local interests—the university and other big developers.  

Just so, whatever its benefits, instituting term limits in Sacramento—a move that Tom Bates fought all the way to the Supreme Court—has increased the influence of bureaucrats and lobbyists in California. They’re ensconced in the political landscape, while new legislators come and go, many never gaining the experience necessary to be effective. That’s why term limits have repeatedly been used to purge liberals from office.  

What keeps more Berkeleyans from volunteering for city commissions is not the presence of forceful individuals. It’s the dedication that commission service involves, especially service on Planning and other boards that ought to require a big investment of time and energy.  

I say “ought to” because it’s common knowledge that some commissioners come to meetings, their packets unread, and vote on matters they’ve barely scanned. Nobody criticizes such behavior, at least not publicly, because people are all volunteers and, it’s assumed, doing the best they can. So going after commissioners who not only fulfill the call of duty but surpass it is particularly offensive.  

On July 12 the council can demonstrate its commitment to citizen democracy by doing two things: It can reject the proposed new limits on commission service. And it can direct staff to annually survey commissioners about the quality of staff support and to report the results back to the council, as stipulated by Council Resolution No. 61,312-N.S., taken in 2001 (see the Commissioner’s Manual, Appendix E, Section 4). To my knowledge, no such surveys have ever been done. This would be an opportune time to start.  



It looks as if Councilmember Anderson is having second thoughts about his vote for the UC settlement in May. At the council’s July 21 meeting, he showed some mettle by ignoring a mayoral plea and abstaining on a vote to approve the city sewer fees that the settlement assigned the university. The measure still passed, but only by the slimmest of margins (5-3-1). May council support for the settlement dwindle still further.