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Kitchen Democracy Cooks Up Civic Participation

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday June 13, 2006

They call themselves “the Kitcheneers.” 

They want to strengthen participatory democracy by engaging citizens in local issues. They promise to deliver your ideas to city officials and, if you are too tired for that Thursday night City Hall meeting, they will bring the City Hall to you—courtesy the Internet. 

Meet the husband and wife duo of Robert Vogel and Simona Carini—founders of Berkeley’s, which could become the Craigslist for municipal government in the future. 

Vogel, who used to run a software company and recently finished graduate studies in physics from UC Berkeley, confessed that he had never found time for City Council meetings in the past.  

“I realized that this was definitely not good for participatory democracy,” he said. “I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to make it easier for them and decision makers in City Hall to connect to each other on issues that mattered to citizens. And thus KD was born in March.” 

With a background in literature, nursing, and clinical database management, Carini is the perfect  

partner for Vogel. Quick and articulate, she keeps regular tabs on every new comment that residents send their way every day. The website currently posts a maximum of 20 new comments daily, which get screened first for personal attacks. 

When asked why they chose the name Kitchen Democracy, Robert said, “It’s because we think that people’s participation nurtures democracy like healthy food. It’s as simple as that.” 

On Kitchen Democracy, Berkeley residents can also read about local issues from experts who represent many sides, both inside and outside City Hall. 

“The meetings are often held late at night, and a lot of people who attend have no clue about the background of the issue,” Vogel said. “People usually have to speak very quickly because of the time limit. The experts’ page is a great place to start to clear your doubts.” 

Residents can also vote on an issue and see the comments of their neighbors and those of neighboring communities. Anyone living within 50 miles of Berkeley is welcome to vote and post comments on the website but only registered Berkeley voters are included in the Kitchen Democracy tally. 

Some of these comments have been noticed by City Hall. Vogel gave the example of Bolfing’s Hardware on College Avenue, which was seeking city permission to renovate and build three housing units. Two-hundred-and-forty people wrote Kitchen Democracy to express support for those changes. 

“It felt great to help the local small business community of the Elmwood shopping district in some way because its members always face competition from bigger chains,” he said. “We want to do more stuff like that.” 

Three months after setting up shop, Kitchen Democracy has gained the attention of Berkeley officials.  

“Kitchen Democracy provides a forum for residents of Berkeley to express their views and ideas on some of the issues that come before the Planning Commission,” said Susan Wengraf, city planning commissioner. “For those people who cannot come to commission meetings, it creates an invaluable way for me to learn what they are thinking about specific issues so that I can make an informed decision in my role as commissioner.”  

Vogel explained that the website features topics based on “how interested the council members are about an issue. Presently we are working mainly with councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who represents District 8, which is the district we belong to, but we are slowly expanding to all the other districts.” 

Vogel said that about 450 Berkeley residents are now using their website, but hopes Kitchen Democracy becomes a place all 70,000 registered voters in Berkeley will use. Vogel also hopes to start putting up the ZAB agenda and the City Council agenda on the website soon. 

“We want to bring up local issues significant to every district.” he said. “Currently, some of the issues residents are voting on are whether the language of the BUSD parcel tax ballot measure should incorporate the BeSMaart recommendation and if the Berkeley Transportation and Planning Commissions should hold public hearings on the Bus Rapid Transit project.” 

Recently, 27 registered voters voted yes on the issue of whether or not the traffic diverter at Domingo and Hazel streets should become a community garden, a project which was approved May 31. 

According to Councilmember Wozniak: “Kitchen Democracy is a great tool to help me better understand my constituents’ opinions on specific issues and to help them arrive at an informed opinion . . . I’ve checked the website twice a day to read the comments and the vote tallies.” 

Vogel said he is proud of the role the website is beginning to have in civic affairs and its potential to keep Berkeley’s elected officials honest. 

“KD is probably the first of its kind,” Vogel says. “I don’t think anything like this exists anywhere else. What makes it really interesting is that it serves as a community memory. In a year from now, people will be able to go back and see it if City Hall’s decisions reflect that of the community, . . . if the City Hall actually keeps its word.”