10 Questions for Councilmember Kriss Worthington

By Jonathan Wafer Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 11, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of interviews with local elected officials. 


Daily Planet: Where were you born and where did you grow up, and how does that affect to how you regard the issues in Berkeley and in your district? 


Kris Worthington: I was in foster homes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey at a very early age, until I was 11 years old when I was adopted. And that was in Bucks County Pennsylvania, a place where at the age of 11 I knew that I was a Democrat and I was very much in the minority. ... I knew that if you believed in things and you’re fighting for things that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a majority or a minority you just work for the things that you believe in. 

I think that being a foster child has influenced the way I see the world, it influences my sympathy for people who are in difficult situations. ... I think supporting social services and putting money into social service programs to support young people is one of the most important things in the world. That is a major dynamic in Berkeley in terms of our budget. 

We’ve been cutting important social services in Berkeley unnecessarily with the excuse that we don’t have money. At the same time we have millions of extra dollars rolling in from the transfer of property tax being way over budget. But that goes to special designated things at the same time that we’re cutting very precious valuable human services. 


What is your educational background, and how did that help prepare you for being a councilmember? 


KW: When I graduated from high school I took courses at Wilmington College, a Quaker school in Wilmington, Ohio. I didn’t graduate from Wilmington College and I moved to Cambridge and took extension courses at Harvard which were the most demanding and the most educational of any courses I ever took anywhere. 

There are things about the practical real world that nobody ever teaches you. Like when I first got elected I guess I was really shocked to find out that elected officials do not read their packets. That is not said in any way to disparage anybody on the City Council. Now I understand that it’s not just in Berkeley but all over the country and probably all over the world elected officials do not have the time or take the time to read the stuff they’re voting on. It’s just not done. 

And, in fact, one of the mayors from another city nearby laughed at me when I admitted that I actually read our council packets. He thought it was a joke. I like to know what I’m voting on. So there are certain little things like that no education is going to prepare you for. 

I guess my education also didn’t prepare me to understand the personal animosity and political in-fighting. .... You can’t just have a good idea and put it out there. You have to be really persistent and push and push and push in order to get even popular ideas accomplished. 

I guess I feel that my volunteer activities with all the different non-profit groups and political groups that I volunteered with, like my volunteering with the Sierra Club and with neighborhood associations and The National Organization for Women and NAACP, groups that I’ve been a board member of for many years and an activist for many years, that prepared me for City Council a thousand times more than any or all of the classes that I ever took anywhere.  


What are the top three most pressing issues facing your district? 


KW: One, is affordable housing. The costs of rents is outrageously high in Berkeley. No matter how many times Gordon Wozniak lies and says things are great for tenants and that we should take away the tenants’ protections because everything is so wonderful it is tough to get an affordable place to live in Berkeley ... People who work in Berkeley would love to live in Berkeley but they are not even poor. They are middle class. They can’t afford to live here. So I would say that the affordability of housing, both rental and ownership, is one of the most important issues that affect people in Berkeley and what the quality of life is in Berkeley. Right now Berkeley has policies that if you build condos none of your units have to be affordable: at 30 percent, 50 percent, 80 percent or even 100 percent AMI (Area Median Income). It is outrageous that Berkeley, a supposedly progressive bastion, has worse policies on this than most other cities in the state. And we allow developers to say ‘Oh well, I can’t make enough profit so I need to charge 120 percent AMI for my (so called) affordable units’. I think it’s a stretch to say 80 percent units are actually affordable. What we desperately need is units at 30 percent and 50 percent Area Median Income. At least when we had a law where there were 80 percent units it could help the lower middle class. A hundred percent AMI is a lot of money. I think that’s one of the glaring outrages. 

The other two biggest things are traffic and transportation issues and public safety. People feeling it’s dangerous to have speeding cars going down the streets. The volume and velocity of the vehicles. Also, how much money is going to go in traffic and how much is going to go in highways. 


Do you agree with the direction the city is heading in. Why or why not? 


KW: That depends on what subject you look at. I think Berkeley has a lot of wonderful people that are working for the city doing really good things... 

There are some issues where we are stumbling or falling backwards. It’s rare now that we’re the first city to do progressive things. ... We should have solarized every public building we own by now and we are not even close. The tree ordinance: Certainly there are many, many cities that have a better tree ordinance than Berkeley. 

I think the single biggest glaring problem with city government is land use. Anyone that has to deal with land use is being thrust into an insane situation. And this is whether you’re a developer trying to build something or whether you’re a home owner trying to do something for your house. The process is absurd. You’re supposed to show up at this meeting at 7, like the zoning board, and sign a card in order to speak at 10 or 11 or sometimes public hearings start after 12. You can leave and come back. Either we make you make two trips or we make you sit there for hours and hours and hours listening to cases that have no interest to you. That is so undemocratic. 

And then within land use, I see it as corruption, because of campaign contributions to certain politicians, the city has illegally and or immorally approved certain projects or given them special treatment. I think it’s unfair to the other developers that one developer gets told ‘Oh, you don’t have to follow the rules. We will let you not do your environmental review. We’ll take the low income money and give it to you for projects that are not low income.’ And we have a history of that happening here in Berkeley. ... 

We have so little money for low income housing. How can you justify stealing the low income money to support higher income housing? If you want to create a pool of money to fund middle class housing I would vote for that, but don’t steal the money from the low income housing fund in order to give it to the middle income housing.... 

Even the Downtown Plan recently, which was staffed with pro-growth, built lots of things and didn’t get students’ perspectives and minority peoples’ perspectives or poor peoples’ perspectives. Even those people, the elitist big name people, all agree that the most important thing in planning is to have consistency. You can’t have favoritism for certain developers. I believe that all four panelists agreed with that concept, that you really need to have consistency. And what Berkeley has is a consistency that certain big campaign contributions corruptly get favoritist treatment. I think that is a major problem that we need to fix and it’s going to affect the whole future of Berkeley because when people are upset over land use things that are done corruptly, then they vote against ballot measures to fund things that they actually support... 

The integrity of our planning process has got to be restored. That’s one of the reasons why I support public finance of elections to take away some of the stench of certain developers and corporate interests. In Berkeley, even though the developers’ campaign contribution is only $250 and that developer can only give $250, we have had cases where one developer gets many thousands of dollars to a councilman. Are those councilmembers going to turn around vote against that developer? It could happen but it makes it a lot harder. I see that as one of our big problems that’s affecting the faith and confidence of the people in the city.  


What is your opinion of the proposal to develop a new downtown plan and the settlement with the University of California over its Long Range Development Plan? 


KW: From a taxpayer point of view I think it’s outrageous that the university, which is clearly legally obligated to pay us over a $1 million for sewers, is being allowed under this agreement to pay $200,000 for sewers. So the taxpayers of Berkeley have to subsidize somewhere between $1 million to $2.4 million dollars that pretty much every lawyer agrees that the university has to pay. 

From a taxpayers’ point a view this settlement is outrageous. ... It makes no logical sense to take less money for everything than you’re owed for one thing. Separate from that is the whole factor of the secrecy. There is no legal requirement that this deal had to be kept secret ... It is a horrible violation of open government that one or two people behind the scene are going to make this secret. I think the secrecy is more outrageous then the agreement. One of the ironies of this is , and I haven’t seen this publicized in any newspaper, is that Chancellor Bergineau offered the city in writing basically as much money as this offer before the lawsuit even happened. So if the City Council was to settle for this pathetic pittance that doesn’t even pay the legal bills the university actually owes us, why would they get anybody in an uproar?... 

The priorities that could have and should have been fought for that affect the quality of life in Berkeley. ... We could dedicate one half of one percent of a project budget as transportation mitigation and provide free public transit to every single UC employee. Even if it only got 5 percent of employees from driving their cars it would dramatically reduce the need for parking. It would improve public transit. And it would benefit UC’s employees. This could have been a wonderful thing that benefits the neighborhoods by reducing traffic.... 

This secret settlement let down the students, let down the employees and was a giant disappointment to the neighborhood people who were promised by Tom Bates repeatedly that they would get to see this agreement.... It will be hurting the taxpayers of Berkeley for many, many years to come. 


How do you think the mayor is doing at his position? Are you considering running for mayor, and if so, what changes would you try to make? 


KW: I can’t answer that question here in this building. 


Has Berkeley’s recent development boom been beneficial for the city? What new direction, if any, should the city’s development take over the next decade? 


KW: Building more housing is a good thing to do. But to the extent that much that has been built is so expensive, it’s not very helpful. And because of our policies, This whole thing of allowing them to do 120 percent AMI, these hundreds of hundreds of condo units that are coming in effectively have not one affordable unit. So I don’t think this benefits the city an awful lot to have hundreds of hundreds of really expensive condos.... 

We need to strongly support our industrial area because we have the West Berkeley Plan. That means we’re providing frequently union or union scale salaries to a bunch of people who don’t have to have college degrees. So, we’re giving working class people the chance to have a good salary by keeping our manufacturing.... 

We need to make a real priority for affordable housing. Fund the housing trust fund. Fund the general fund. We have to give the one or two affordable housing projects that come through the City Council enormous support and help them to succeed. And we’re not doing that sufficiently from my point of view. 

I think affordable housing projects should be moved to the front of the line. There are so few of them. We really need to fix the chaos and confusion of our whole land use process. The very first item on the agenda should be the land use public hearing. 


How would you characterize the political climate in Berkeley these days? 


KW: The political climate in Berkeley among the people is great. There are a lot of progressive people providing leadership to local, state, national and international campaigns and issues. We have people in Berkeley that are rocking the world and the nation. The whole MoveOn campaign is the most prominent example that mobilized and organized tens of thousands of people all over the country. ... There are many activists that are doing a phenomenal job. The climate among City Council is not reflective of the people of Berkeley and that’s sad. 


What is your favorite thing about Berkeley? 


KW: My favorite thing about Berkeley is its diversity and its creativity and progressiveness.  


What is your least favorite thing about Berkeley? 


KW: There are two things that are equal and I don’t know which is worse. The corruption in land use decisions and favoritism to certain developers. And [the other is] the hypocrisy in city government.?