For a few days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the Bush White House doled out the sort of upbeat rhetoric with which it customarily responds to disasters that are at least partly of its own making. The public was advised by Vice President Cheney that “tremendous progress” was being made in Louisiana. On Sept. 2, the president told FEMA Director Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Spin is what we’ve come to expect from the Bush administration. But it’s not what we expect from civic leaders in Berkeley.
That’s why Councilmember Linda Maio’s op-ed in the Sept. 6 Daily Californian comes as something of a shock. On its face the article is a fulsome tribute to the UC Berkeley chancellor and the “new partnership” between the campus and the community that he allegedly helped to forge during his first year at Cal. But once you know enough to read between the lines, you see the piece for what it really is: an attempt to whitewash the awful settlement of the city’s lawsuit against the university administration, approved by the City Council in May on a secret 6-3 vote.
The object of the city’s suit was the University’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) and its environmental impact plan (EIR). Maio herself describes the LDRP as “deeply flawed.” But its flaws are never specified in her essay. Neither is a single detail of the city’s lawsuit or the May settlement agreement.
Instead, we’re offered feel-good verbiage. The settlement, we’re told, “was a powerful statement of good faith on both sides.” It laid the foundations of “our mutual and equal partnership.” Addressing the paramount issue of off-campus university development, the “settlement sets up a model joint planning effort that, if successful, will protect the community’s interests.”
These claims are fanciful. Far from establishing a “mutual and equal partnership,” the settlement handed over control of future planning for the city’s downtown to the university administration. The agreement calls for the preparation of a so-called Downtown Area Plan (DAP).
Referring to the plan’s preparation, Maio writes: “we will be looking for the chancellor to fully engage the community as partners. This means regular meetings with elected officials, neighborhood associations, community groups and the business community.”
She neglects to say that the settlement itself cuts the community out of the planning process. It puts city and campus planning staffs, notorious for their exclusionary procedures, in charge of drafting the DAP (Section II.B.3 - 4). The Planning Commission, designated by the city’s charter as the lead agency in land use policymaking, isn’t even mentioned. Though the settlement makes no provision for involving any downtown property-owners except the city and UC, the DAP “shall encompass the entire scope of future downtown development, including all private and public sector landowners and developers” (Section I.L).
Here’s the topper: the university administration will not be bound by the DAP. “UC Berkeley reserves the right to determine if the DAP or [its] EIR meet the regents’ needs. The basis for making such a determination would be that the DAP or EIR does not accommodate UC Berkeley development in a manner satisfactory to the Regents” (Section II.B.7).
In another mind-boggling passage, Councilmember Maio asserts that “the creative solutions” developed by the chancellor, council and mayor “kept us from spiraling into a never-ending cycle of litigation and recriminations.” Reading Maio’s op-ed, you’d never guess that five days before it appeared, a group of Berkeley citizens sued her, the mayor and the four other councilmembers who voted for the settlement (Anderson, Capitelli, Moore and Wozniak), the city manager, the city attorney and the UC Regents. The plaintiffs asked the California Superior Court in Oakland to void the settlement because “it contracted away the City Council’s right to independently exercise its police power in the future.” So much for having put an end to litigation and recriminations.
If, as Maio says, she wants to make “a powerful statement of good faith,” the best thing she could do at this point is to admit openly that in voting for the settlement, she opted to surrender the city’s rightful sovereignty to the university administration. Indeed, she implicitly admits as much in her laudation of Chancellor Birgenau.
The City Council, she writes, “made a decisive and controversial choice” to give the chancellor “an opportunity to change our relationship from one rooted in conflict to one based on cooperation.” (We are left to wonder: if the settlement was as advantageous as Maio claims, why was its approval controversial?) Because he seized that opportunity, we now have a chance to work “through cooperation, collaboration, ... relying on the good offices of our leaders, especially Chancellor Birgeneau.”
To designate Chancellor Birgeneau as the foremost among “our leaders” is to disregard the fact that every UC administrator, no matter how personally solicitous of the larger community, is ultimately accountable not to the public but to the regents.
But if the settlement is upheld in court, and the DAP is instituted, the community will indeed have no choice but to rely on the Regents’ offices, good or bad. Unhappily, the LRDP is only the most recent of many precedents suggesting that, as far as university expansion in Berkeley is concerned, those offices will not be beneficent ones.
Whether the settlement is upheld or struck down, Berkeleyans will be able to choose whether to continue relying on the offices of the six elected officials who voted for it. (Three of them—Mayor Bates, Councilmember Wozniak and Maio herself—will be up for re-election in November 2006.) After acknowledging that their support for the settlement was a mistake, these six should join the three councilmembers who voted against the agreement—Olds, Spring and Worthington—and sue the university for the $1.2 million to $2.4 million in sewer fees that city staff have determined the campus owes the city. Such a suit would automatically terminate the settlement (“Settlement Agreement,” Section VI). Then, working with their elected and appointed colleagues in City Hall, the mayor and council should persuade Chancellor Birgenau to commit the university administration to a long range development plan for UC that, unlike the current LRDP, respects city and state law and honors the community’s needs and democratic traditions.
Whatever else they do, our city officials should level with us. This is Berkeley, not Crawford, Texas.
The text of the UC-City settlement agreement is online at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/