Editorial: Civics Lessons, By: Becky O'Malley

Friday February 10, 2006

The cliché, surely quoted at some time previously in this space, is that anyone who loves law or sausages should not watch either being made. As someone who loves the law with all its defects, I’ve tried to follow that warning in recent years, but occasionally I can’t avoid seeing what goes on in government. The last month has been particularly bad at the federal level, what with the always excruciatingly embarrassing State of the Union speech, followed by the attorney general’s mealy-mouthed performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But what’s been going on in Berkeley is even more embarrassing. 

We went down to Old City Hall on Tuesday to do a little color collection, to see the real people behind the lively controversy over the Bates-Church-Anderson plan for building something big in South Berkeley. They didn’t disappoint: old ladies in great hats and flea market vendors in Afro-centric robes playing on the same team as aging anarcho-hippies, neighborhood watchdogs and serious policy wonks. One brave young white male stood out front with a sign for the other team, a neatly lettered equation saying approximately “Berkeley NIMBYs = Urban Sprawl = Oil Use = War.” Take that, unruly mob! 

We engaged him in dialogue, and he allowed as how he grew up in Davis and now lives in a family home in the Claremont district, but nevertheless feels well qualified to tell the folks who live near the BART station how much density they should be willing to tolerate in their neighborhood. An annoyed neighbor pointed out to him that the term NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) was coined by people protesting the Love Canal toxicity in their own neighborhood, but it didn’t faze him—he probably wasn’t even born then.  

Inside the building another self-confident white guy, an old one this time, was delivering the State of the City address. We missed it, figuring we could catch it on the streaming video on the web, but it doesn’t seem to be posted there. What is posted is his Power Point slides, the omnipresent medium now contributing to the Dumbing Down of Practically Everything. From these one can learn that the mayor stands four-square in favor of kids and hopes to be able to greenwash as much as he possibly can—not exactly breaking news. His accomplishments are detailed a la David Letterman as a reverse-numbered top 10 list—perhaps he or his speechwriter is not aware that Letterman uses that format to mock what is being listed. 

Next up was the City Council meeting. The chambers were full, so our access was barred by police officers and the fire chief (is that the highest and best use of her time?) The city did supply a TV monitor in the foyer, so we could watch the proceedings from comfortable chairs, with captions which helped us understand the mumblers on the council. It was a perfect opportunity for the smartmouths in the group to make audible wisecracks in response to what they thought were dumb statements from the podium, and they didn’t lack for material.  

The spectacle of councilmembers, led off by Max Anderson, falling all over themselves to back-pedal from their disastrous decision to do a post-facto endorsement of the BART site building project planning grant was hilarious. Anderson actually said the words—I’m sure I heard him—“the future lies ahead.”  

Their solution for this fiasco? They’re holding a “community” meeting this very Saturday (just four days notice) from 10-12 a.m. (prime business hours for the Ashby Flea Market vendors) in a church. But because it’s a church, the city attorney, whose grasp of constitutional law is tenuous at best, ruled that it can’t be a noticed special City Council meeting, because that would violate the principle of separation of church and state. And under her equally tenuous interpretation of the Brown Act, that meant that only four councilmembers may be present at any one time. Someone suggested that they could swap in and out. Two words for that: Serial Meeting—look it up. Meanwhile, the city-owned South Berkeley Senior Center will sit vacant two blocks west. And you think the Keystone Cops aren’t running Berkeley? 

Watching that exchange was so demoralizing we went out for dinner after that, figuring we could catch the rest of the evening on video if we wanted to. Later in the week I watched the council discuss their ongoing attempt to gut the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, a topic in which I have a personal interest, since I worked for four years with fellow Landmarks Preservation Commission members on an intelligent revision which is now in danger of being scrapped. Mayor Bates’ rambling 10-minute mangling of the technical architectural term “integrity” was mind-numbing, reminiscent of some of Dubya’s discussions of “nucular WMDs.” 

One footnote, for the record. Councilmember Worthington asked if it were true, as rumored, that a California Public Records Act request for copies of all communications that the mayor and councilmembers had engaged in regarding this ordinance had been made and perhaps denied. The city manager gave some sort of evasive response to the effect that the request had been complied with. Well, actually, no, that’s not true.  

It was the Daily Planet that made the request. We got to see just a very few documents. The letter which came back to us over the manager’s signature (perhaps he didn’t see it) said: “Please be advised that the city is withholding from disclosure communications between the mayor and his staff and all communications to the mayor from citizens as such documents reflect the mayor’s deliberative process and are exempt from disclosure under Government Code 6255.” This is the old “executive privilege” dodge, first perfected under Richard Nixon and recently invoked by Vice President Cheney to avoid revealing his collaboration with the energy industry in the Energy Task Force meetings.  

We forwarded the letter to public interest groups in the freedom of information field, and they’ve told us that they think no such exemption now exists or should exist in California law. One of them has put in its own CPRA request to the City of Berkeley for the same information to test the waters. We’ll see what happens. More on this later.