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Initiatives Take Aim at City By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday August 23, 2005

For several Berkeley political watchdogs this has been their summer of discontent.  

They see developers getting too many concessions, the all-white school board acting as an rubber stamp, the library using technology they fear could one day monitor patrons, the city attorney’s office giving poor legal advice and city and school budgets that are out of control. 

“There’s a complete frustration with the way the city is being managed,” said Marie Bowman, president of Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes (BASTA). 

As Berkeley politics cools off during its August breather, Bowman and others outside the city’s political establishment haven’t taken summer vacations. 

They are working on ballot initiatives aiming to change the way the city elects its officials, balances its budget, pays its employees, oversees new development and even checks out library books. 

If in the June 2006 primary election a majority of Berkeley voters are in agreement, next year could be the establishment’s summer of discontent. 


City Finance Measures 

After forming last year to successfully fight off proposed city tax hikes, BASTA is taking the offensive for the June election. It has already written three ballot measures and is working on two more, Bowman said. 

One initiative would require city employees to contribute to their pension fund. Currently most city labor contracts call on Berkeley to pay full pension contributions. BASTA’s proposal would force Berkeley employees to pay the average pension contribution made by employees in surrounding cities. 

BASTA, concerned by the recent sale of three properties, is sponsoring an initiative that would require a two-thirds popular vote before the city sells surplus property. 

A third initiative would limit the city’s ability to increase taxes for special funds like the library fund. Currently the City Council can raise the library fund tax through its choice of two cost of living indexes. Typically it chooses the larger tax increase, but the BASTA measure would require it to use the smaller increase.  

Library Director Jackie Griffin has said the higher tax rate approved this year by the council will enable the library to reopen on Sundays starting next month. 

BASTA is also considering a measure that would require the city to more than double its emergency cash reserve from 6 percent of the total budget to 13 percent.  

That would tie lawmakers hands, said Councilmember Linda Maio. 

“A larger reserve would mean cutting all of the services that have already been cut,” she said. “I don’t think people really understand the kind of impact that would have.” 


School District 

Typically when there is a school measure on the ballot it comes from the school district. Not next year. A recently reformed organization, Berkelyans Endorse School Management Accountability Responsiveness Transparency (BESMART), spearheaded by staunch district critic Yolanda Huang, is seeking to remake the school board. 

One measure would abolish the five-member school board elected at-large throughout the city, and replace it with a nine-member board. Eight members would represent the eight City Council districts and a ninth member would represent the city as a whole, Huang said. 

“If they ran in districts, that would bring greater diversity for the board as a whole,” said Councilmember Darryl Moore, who has signed on to the initiative. 

Berkeley, where one-third of the students are African American, hasn’t had an African American school board member since Lloyd Lee stepped down in 1998. 

A second initiative from BESMART would establish a directly elected auditor to oversee district finances. 

“The district’s financial accountability is not strong,” Huang said. “I think it would help to have an internal auditor whose goal is good management and accountability.” 

School Board Member Terry Doran said he didn’t think either measure would improve Berkeley schools. He held that the district already had an outside auditor and county supervision, and that “a nine-member school board seems awfully unwieldy.” 

BESMART has also proposed an initiative that would prevent the school board from selling off excess property without a two-thirds vote. The measure could disrupt plans for the former Hillside Elementary School, which the district has rented, but might one day sell. 



Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he is drafting an initiative that would clearly define zoning rules for new development and foster affordable housing. Worthington said his measure would spell out density requirements, which critics of the city say have been used to super-size new developments. But if a proposed development contained more than half affordable units, Worthington said, “they would be given bonus space up the wazoo.”  

Meanwhile, Bowman said that BASTA is also considering a measure to better define density standards. The BASTA plan, she said, would restrict much of the city’s authority to deviate from its land use plans. 


Other Proposals 

Elliot Cohen, author of last’s year’s failed Tree Ordinance, is working on a ballot measure to render the public library’s new checkout system illegal. Cohen agrees with privacy advocates who fear the radio devices placed on library materials to track books could be used by authorities to track patrons. If the measure is passed, the library would have to scrap its new $650,000 system. 

Bowman said several residents have spoken to her about a ballot initiative to call for the city attorney to be directly elected, rather than appointed. 

“A lot of people are upset with the city attorney in the wake of the UC-city deal,” said Bowman, adding that she didn’t expect BASTA to put the measure on the ballot.  

Most California cities appoint city attorneys, although surrounding cities—Oakland, Albany and San Francisco—have elected city attorneys. 


Can They Win 

Bowman has a mixed track record in Berkeley elections. As leader of BASTA, she is coming off an election-year sweep where voters rejected city tax measures. But two years prior, Bowman was a key figure in Measure P—a campaign to restrict height limits on Berkeley buildings that garnered just 20 percent of the vote. Last year voters defeated all three citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives. 

“I learned a lot from Measure P,” Bowman said. “That campaign started too late and it never really had a chance to get its ideas out.”  

Time is of the essence for several of the proposed initiatives. For those like the district-wide school board elections, which would require a change to the city’s charter, roughly 10,500 signatures are needed to get on the ballot, said City Clerk Sara Cox. A standard ballot initiative requires 2,007 signatures. 


Shifting Alliances 

To gather signatures and mount a campaign, Bowman will need to find financial backing at a time when a major force behind BASTA’s victory last year has pulled out of the group. The Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA), which last year gave money and manpower to BASTA’s efforts, is working on its own ballot measure for next November to change rent control laws and abolish the rent board. 

“BASTA united a lot of people over a specific issue last year,” said BPOA President Michael Wilson. “Now there isn’t a specific issue so it’s a bit formless and shapeless.” 

While he said the BPOA might support some of BASTA’s proposals, he questioned whether the group was over-extending itself. “I would never run five ballot initiatives,” he said. 

Bowman countered that collecting signatures for multiple ballot measures was more efficient and that BASTA planned to team up with other groups floating initiatives.  

Already Bowman and Huang—strangers until bumping into each other at a recent City Council meeting—have joined forces.  

“We started talking and we realized that we have similar concerns about financial accountability,” said Huang. She added that Bowman had helped her to better understand the initiative process, but stopped short of saying that she would try to remake BESMART in BASTA’s image. 

“Let’s see if we win first,” she said.