Column: The Public Eye: Putting Earrings on Tom Bates’ Pig By Zelda Bronstein

Tuesday October 11, 2005

“No more compromises,” vowed Mayor Bates during a break in the council’s Sept. 27 deliberations. The mayor had just joined councilmembers Capitelli, Maio, Moore, Olds and Wozniak in a 6-3 vote approving a “public participation program” for the Downtown Area Plan (DAP). 

The plan (but not the program) was mandated by the council’s secret settlement of its lawsuit against UC last May. In response to concerns about community representation, the mayor’s ostensible compromise was to add three planning commissioners, to be chosen by the Planning Commission, to an 18-member citizens advisory group to be chosen by the mayor and the council (two appointees apiece).  

Some compromise. The only way to ensure adequate representation of the many constituencies with a direct interest in downtown—residents, businesspeople, arts groups, environmentalists, preservationists, students, transportation activists, among others—would have been to create an advisory group composed of those constituencies’ representatives. Instead, the council approved a task force consisting entirely of council appointees.  

Council appointees, who include all non-elected city commissioners, reflect the interests of the mayor and individual councilmembers who appoint them, not stakeholder constituencies. Of course, some councilmembers are likely to choose representatives of stakeholder groups. But the ad hoc appointment procedure already underway, in which each councilmember independently chooses her or his two appointees, makes it unlikely that all deserving groups will be represented.  

The snubbing of the community was no oversight. The council rejected a proposal from the Transportation Commission to set up a DAP advisory group modeled on the admirable 2004 UC Hotel/Conference Center Task Force, which included representatives of all major downtown stakeholder groups. The members of that task force were chosen by a subcommittee of the planning commission, which also oversaw the task force’s work. This format, dubbed the stakeholder model, was also endorsed in letters from the Sierra Club, the Le Conte Neighborhood Association and MAAGNA (McKinleyAddisonAllstonGrant Neighborhood Association) and in public comments made at the meeting by Jesse Arreguin, director of city affairs for the Associated Students of the University of California and by others, including myself.  

The stakeholder model didn’t go down without a fight. Councilmember Spring made a motion, seconded by Councilmember Anderson, to refer the stakeholder model back to the planning commission and to seek the commission’s recommendation on a format for the DAP citizens advisory group. The council, said Anderson, should honor “the statutory role of the planning commission” and the historically “unique … level of citizen participation” in Berkeley municipal affairs. Right on.  

The arguments marshaled against Spring’s motion and the stakeholder model were disingenuous. Councilmember Maio said that, given its heavy workload, the Planning Commission wouldn’t have time to oversee the DAP process. In reply, Councilmember Worthington stated, all too accurately, that a list of the Planning Commission’s upcoming projects was as relevant to the issue at hand as a list of what he’d eaten that day. The Planning Commission, he observed, wasn’t being ask to run the DAP advisory group but rather to choose its format at the commission’s meeting the very next evening. (He might have added the matter was already listed on the commission’s Sept. 28 agenda.) Worthington was ignored by the council majority.  

From the staff side, Planning Director Dan Marks contended that an advisory group larger than 20 (15 was his ideal) would be unmanageable. What he meant, I surmise, is that staff would be unable to control such a group, which instead would be run by its citizen personnel. In an inexcusable omission, Marks failed to remind the council that every previous area plan—West Berkeley, South Berkeley, Southside (currently in draft), and Downtown—was put together by a stakeholder group consisting of 27 or more members.  

Mayor Bates’ major contribution to the spinfest took the form of an op-ed that appeared in the Daily Planet the morning of the meeting. Under the title “Getting to Work on Our Downtown Plan,” the mayor wrote: “[W]e will start by creating a community-led task force.” Less than 24 hours after his essay hit the streets, the council, acting at the mayor’s behest, created the mayor-and-council-led task force described above.  

On second thought, make that the mayor-led task force. The Downtown Area Plan is Tom Bates’ baby; the idea for it came from him, not the university. Another notable feature of the DAP task force, left unmentioned in both the mayor’s op-ed and the council’s discussion, is that the DAP advisory group’s chair is to be chosen by Mayor Bates.  

That provision appears to violate city protocol and law. The resolution prepared by staff and approved by the council on Sept. 27 states that the DAP advisory group is to be “a temporary City of Berkeley commission.” It also states that “the DPAC [Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee] shall operate under the rules set forth in the City Council's resolutions for Commissions and the City Commissioner's Handbook.” 

According to the City of Berkeley Commissioner’s Manual, each city commission is to elect its own chair and vice chair, “unless otherwise provided by ordinance.” The council’s Sept. 27 resolution was not an ordinance. So what law or even mere precedent authorizes the mayoral selection of this (temporary) commission’s chair? Apparently nothing. But what else is new in the Bates mayoralty?  

As the saying goes: you can put earrings on a pig, but it’s still a pig. For all the blather about community, the fact is that the DAP resolution approved by the council majority broke the public trust. But it’s only part of the larger betrayal that the council perpetrated when it dropped the city’s lawsuit over the UC administration’s Long Range Development Plan, which projects over 1.2 million square feet of off-campus development and at least 1,000 new off-campus parking spaces.  

The “lack of community control over university growth,” wrote Mayor Bates in his op-ed, “was the single most important reason we filed a lawsuit to stop implementation of their LRDP [Long Range Development Plan].” He got that one right. But if the mayor and his allies were really committed to community control, they would have pressed the city’s suit all the way to court.  

Most of the debate about the city’s settlement with the UC administration has concerned university development off the campus proper, and in downtown in particular. What the settlement agreement doesn’t say but what has become apparent is that one purpose of the DAP is to accommodate private development in downtown that would be illegal under the city’s existing Downtown Plan and zoning law.  

Consider the telling slip in Mayor Bates’ op-ed: “[S]ome community members,” wrote the mayor, “have wondered what is wrong with the city’s existing downtown plan. The current downtown will be used as a starting point for the new plan. However, it was developed over 15 years ago and is, in many cases, out of date.” Clearly, Mr. Bates meant to say that the current downtown plan will be used as the starting point for the new plan. The text he sent to the Daily Planet belies his true intentions, which are to legitimate the outsized, illegal developments that have already been approved by the council and expedited by city staff. 

Once the new height and density standards are in place, citizens appealing the successors to the Gaia Building and the Seagate project will no longer have a legal leg to stand on. City staff are already citing the Gaia and Seagate structures as benchmarks for pending development (see pages 17 and 18 of the July 25 staff report to the council on the Brower Center/Oxford Plaza).  

Meanwhile the DAP is being rolled out under the guise of a triumphant town and gown détente achieved through the wondrous ministrations of Mayor Bates.  

Sorry, but it’s still a pig.8