Public Comment

Commentary: Why I’m Running For Mayor

By Zelda Bronstein
Friday April 07, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Planet is inviting all candidates for office in Berkeley to contribute regularly to our Commentary pages between now and the election. This is the only submission we have received so far; Mayor Bates’ aide Cisco DeVries says the m ayor will eventually submit a piece on this topic, but can’t do so until later in the month because he’s on vacation. Other candidates are encouraged to submit pieces when they can. 


Four years ago I worked hard to bring Tom Bates out of retirement. He p romised us “Berkeley at its Best.” What we got was Sacramento-style politics—backroom deals, cronyism and incessant spin.  

I’m not a career politician. I’ve never before sought public office. That I’m doing so now is a sign of how distressed I am about t he direction Berkeley is being taken. I know that many others share my concern.  

Our first and most urgent task is to restore the democratic character of our public life. Berkeley, of all places, should have a government that’s fair, open and accounta ble. I will ask the council to rescind the most egregious decision in Berkeley’s history—the disastrous secret settlement of the city’s lawsuit over UC expansion. To prevent further secrecy, I’ll push for a strong Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance—a law that gi ves citizens legal access to information about local government, and the right to sue the city if they think the law’s provisions have been violated by city officials. Imagine: Citizens wouldn’t need to file Public Record Act requests to find out what’s goin g on!  

Second, today out-of-control development is threatening Berkeley’s unique character and its quality of life. Nobody wants to live in a West Coast version of Colonial Williamsburg. But new buildings must enhance our neighborhoods and honor our arch itectural heritage.  

Our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance is under assault. I’ll lift the siege and then work with Berkeley’s preservation community to strengthen our protections for the city’s historic buildings. Those protections must include a st ructu re of merit designation with guts. What makes Berkeley recognizably Berkeley is an ensemble of the old and the new, the spectacular and the mundane. We need to care for the whole urban fabric.  

We also need to start asking: How much development can Berke ley take without losing its identity? To get an honest answer, we have to confront a powerful myth: The notion that if we want to stop gentrification, we have to build as much housing as possible. The fact is that only a fraction of the hundreds of new ap artments that have gone up over the past few years are even officially affordable. Let’s build truly affordable housing and stop using the myth of affordability to justify huge, market rate projects that are beyond the reach of all but the affluent.  

And let’s make sure that all development respects our neighborhoods. The city needs to stop foisting out-of-scale, out-of-character projects on Berkeley residents, and to start taking its cues from the people who are going to be directly affected by new deve lopment. I will meet with and support neighborhood groups who are working to make their community a place they want to live.  

Third, the University of California is the elephant in Berkeley’s room—a cultured and sophisticated elephant—but an ele phant nonetheless. I will do my utmost to defend the interests of Berkeley’s citizens against UC’s unbridled growth.  

After the settlement is rescinded, we’ll still be faced with the hard issues: traffic, and the university’s huge drain on the city’s bud get. The incumbent boasts that he got UC to pay the city $23 million for city services. What he doesn’t say: that’s $23 million over 15 years. A 2004 independent fiscal analysis estimated that providing police, fire and sewer services for UC’s existing an d expande d needs would cost the city of Berkeley $13.5 million a year.  

We’ve been repeatedly told that when the city settled, it got the best deal possible. But two months before the city sued the university, Chancellor Birgeneau offered somewhat bette r terms th an what we ended up with. We need to find out what the city could have gotten if it had pressed ahead with its original suit or a stronger one.  

Fourth, in a nation where independent business is an endangered species, thank goodness our neighborhood shop ping districts are filled with locally owned and operated stores. At a time when American industry is on the ropes, Berkeley has a vital manufacturing sector. San Francisco’s artists were devastated by the office boom; we still have a community of working artists and artisans.  

I will fight to uphold the zoning that keeps West Berkeley affordable to artisans and industry. Instead of shedding crocodile tears as artists are evicted from their studios by high-end developers, I’ll ask the city to hel p artists buy their own buildings. Instead of turning Gilman and Ashby west of San Pablo into strip malls on steroids, the city should be promoting our unique neighborhood shopping districts through creative, year-round marketing events. And we should fig ure out how to fund a free shoppers’ shuttle.  

Of all my goals, the fifth and last I’ll mention here is the most ambitious: delivering the highest quality city services. “The city doesn’t work”—I hear that complaint again and again, all ove r town. It’s n ot just the brushoffs at city hall. It’s the deplorable condition of our streets. It’s our crumbling sewers. The floods that happen throughout the city whenever there’s a hard rain. The decimation of our disaster preparedness office. It’s t he rolling blac kouts of our fire stations, the rising rate of property crimes, and the drug dealing and street violence that have left some Berkeleyans dead and made others prisoners of their own homes.  

We pay some of the highest property taxes in Cali fornia. We ought to be getting value for our money. The main reason we’re not is that the city manager and his colleagues are not getting proper direction from the mayor and the council. Last year, the council set Berkeley’s priorities by filling out a qu estionnaire. The budget process is another municipal embarrassment, a bureaucratic exercise conducted without meaningful council direction or public input. To make matters worse, last April, without prior notice, the council eliminated the Citizens Budget Review Commission.  

I’ll propose that at the beginning of each budget cycle, the council identify essential services, the priorities to be undertaken during that fiscal year, and a clear policy framework within which fiscal decisions will be made. These actions should guide the formation of the city manager’s budget. I’ll also ask the council to reinstate the Budget Commission and to give it adequate staff and political support.  

Finally, I’ll propose that each year the council evaluate the performance of the city man ager, the city attorney and other department heads. In 2000 the council directed the city manager to solicit on an annual basis each commission’s opinions regarding staff service. That directive has never been carried out; I’ll ask that it be put into eff ect in 2007. We also need to find ways for ordinary citizens to effectively express their opinions about city services. And we need to make sure that all these report cards aren’t simply filed away, but have practical consequences.  

My history in Berkele y goes back nearly 40 years. I first came here to attend the university. After graduating from Cal in 1970, I left town twice to go to graduate school and once to take a job. I spent most of the 1980s working as an English professor at UC Santa Barbara. I n 1990, when I moved back for the third time, I said: I’m here for good.  

Since 1992, I’ve been on the board of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association. I was TONA president from 2000 to 2005. I served on the site committee that he lped plan the new Th ousand Oaks School. With my next-door neighbor Christine, I led the successful community effort to build the new tot lot at Thousand Oaks School Park.  

In 1997 I was appointed to the Berkeley Planning Commission. I served on the commission for almost sev en years and chaired it from 2002 to 2004. As a planning commissioner, I initiated and then helped guide the community-based process that led to Berkeley’s first new General Plan in 25 years.  

I also helped to start the Main Street Alliance, the West Ber keley Traffic and Safety Coalition, Neighbors of Ashby BART and the Northern Alameda County Sierra Club Group.  

A reporter recently asked me what I thought would enable me to win. I told him: “If people know what’s going on, they’ll vote for me.” I’m sure that’s true. But I’m also sure that our biggest challenge is going to be getting people to see the reality behind the spin. We’re going up against a powerful political machine.  

I’m running on the slogan, “It’s OUR City!” Please join me in making that claim a political reality.  


Zelda Bronstein is the former chair of the Planning Commission and a graduate of UC Berkeley.