Editorial: Weasel Word Watch: ‘It’s a Compromise’

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday June 20, 2006

The election season is beginning in earnest now. Oakland took the sensible path and got it all out of the way early, before anyone noticed what was going on. The election there proved a couple of things:  

(1) Instant run-offs would save everyone a lot of time and money. Imagine how foolish it would have been (or perhaps could still be) for Alameda County to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars proving that Nancy Nadel’s voters liked Dellums as their second choice.  

(2) Image counts. Ron Dellums has been standing up in front of the voters for a long time now, and they’ve formed a generally good impression of him. His most recent campaign produced few conceptual breakthroughs to tell us how he’ll use the “strong mayor” powers Jerry Brown took unto himself and then ignored.  

Longtime supporters say that Dellums’ real strength is that he’s a smart guy who reads everything and reads constantly. This doesn’t mean spy novels: He’s known to read all the tedious reports which bureaucratic lifers are fond of using to conceal their planned course of action. In other words, he takes serious responsibility for being well-informed and for making his own decisions. (Some naysayers find this hard to believe, because Dellums still looks like a matinee idol at 70, but he’s not just a pretty face.) He’s also been known for his strong staff, people who have their own ideas and talk back to him if needed, not just the usual crowd of sycophants a la Jerry Brown’s Jacques Barzhagi. Jerry started out as a smart guy, but failed as mayor because of his hubris, thinking he had all the right answers, asking none of the right questions, tap-dancing on the edge of the abyss. 

In Berkeley, the election season is getting under way slowly. Mayoral candidates are circulating their petitions, from the super-serious (Zelda Bronstein) to the silly (you pick). At least two incumbent councilmembers, Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington, have held their kick-off parties already. Their opponents are much in evidence these days at civic events: one the past president of the downtown merchants’ association and the other the current president of a neighborhood group.  

Spring and Worthington are both long-time public servants in the Dellums mode. She’s noted for her openness and her big heart: no worthy cause, right down to her beloved animals, is neglected, and she’s never afraid to speak up for what she thinks is right. Worthington is another one of those guys who actually reads and understands everything put in front of him by the lifers. Reporters know that if they need to be sure, for example, whether an ordinance is up for first or second reading, Kriss will be able to tell them, and can parse the language changes while he’s at it. 

We’ve lately seen a lot of high-minded, well-written prose on the Internet, and even occasionally in print, bemoaning the U.S. Congress’s lack of— what to call it in polite discourse? Let’s just say courage. With the occasional exception of a Russell Feingold or an Arlen Spector, Congress begs to be trampled on these days.  

But no one thinks George Bush is in charge either. It’s generally believed that the United States of America is now being governed by the unelected spokespersons for the oil industry who now populate the highest reaches of government, the Roves, Rumsfelds and Cheneys. Citizens feel, and perhaps are, powerless to affect national government.  

What a lot of well-meaning Berkeleyans might not realize is that local government is suffering from a similar affliction, here and elsewhere. The domestic equivalent of the energy industry is the building industry: also rich and able to purchase seats at the table of power on many levels.  

The building industry’s muscle shows up in Berkeley as the University of California consumes more and more of our city in its drive to build bigger edifices of all kinds. Many regents—e.g. Richard Blum, husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein—owe their wealth and accompanying power to the building industry. 

This scenario was played out in local government when most elected officials rolled over for UC’s Long Range Development Plan. The only holdouts were Worthington, Spring and Betty Olds. Observers of the City Council say that Spring has heart, Worthington has brains, and Olds has backbone on occasion. 

Watching the City Council in action is embarrassing. More often than not, it’s obvious that the mayor and most councilmembers have only a foggy idea of what’s on the table. They rely on staff presentations to tell them how to vote most of the time, and all too frequently lately the staff reports are TBD—To Be Delivered: not in the published council packets, so they have to be read on the fly at the council meeting. And often they aren’t read at all. 

For example: take item No. 40 on Tuesday’s council agenda. It’s headed “Compromise Landmarks Ordinance.” Keep your eye on that word “compromise.” It’s the local manifestation of the technique originally patented by Newt Gingrich: he who controls the language controls the action. “Compromise” is one of those weasel words, in the same league with the “Healthy Forests Initiative” made famous by the Bushies.  

And here’s what the staff is asking the City Council to do: “…support, in principle, the draft compromise revisions to the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) and refer those changes to staff, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for review in time for the scheduled council public hearing in July.” In other words, here’s a blank check, please sign on the line in the lower right hand corner, and the rest will be filled in later. Maybe.  

The on-line agenda has an attached puff piece from the Mayor touting his “compromise” which says it has an attachment, “draft ordinance language,” but guess what? It’s not attached. TBD. 

Some policy wonks have gotten what may or may not be a recent draft from the mayor’s office which they were still trying to read through at press time. One reader said it’s riddled with errors, typical of the sloppy drafting often presented to the City Council for approval. He also thinks it introduces some new and even worse ideas calculated to cater to those in the building industry who view historic buildings as potential development sites.  

And now the mayor’s big buddy Councilmember Darryl Moore has added a bit of extra insurance to the equation on behalf of the development industry. He’s appointed Miriam Ng to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, just in time for her to be able to vote on that “compromise” ordinance. 

Who’s she? A principal in Korman and Ng, developer of the hideous Golden Bear building on University, the first of the Big Uglies to squat on that rapidly uglifying boulevard. She’s even rumored to be a Republican. It figures.