Kitchen Democracy Donation Draws Scrutiny

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday July 25, 2006

A proposed $3,000 donation on today’s (Tuesday) City Council agenda to Kitchen Democracy from Councilmember Gordon Wozniak’s council office budget has provoked questions on the appropriate use of city funds. 

Formerly, councilmembers could donate to charitable causes from their council budgets without going through a public approval process. (The expenditures have been on the public record, however.) Conforming to AB 1234, a new state law, the council now must put these proposed donations from a councilmember’s personal account to a public vote. 

Kitchen Democracy (www.kitchendemocracy.org) is a nonprofit website that polls Berkeley residents on particular concerns generally within the city of Berkeley. Anyone can sign up to vote on questions generated by the founders of the site, Robert Vogel and Simona Carini. 

Wozniak has been a supporter since the project’s inception in March. 

“[It] gets more people to participate,” he said. “They’re not trying to tell people what to do.” 

The opinions reflected on the website inform his council vote, Wozniak said, adding, “I’d like the city’s Planning Department to use it for land-use projects.”  

While Wozniak said he is informed by others’ opinions, he also uses the website to educate the public on his views. 

In the “experts” section of the site—where the public can read various opinions related to the designated topics—Wozniak has expressed himself to his constituents on four out of eight city issues that Kitchen Democracy has addressed: questions of housing above the Elmwood Hardware store, a city investment of $750,000 in a system to locate stolen cars, turning a traffic diverter into a community garden, and the future use of a District 8 gas station. 

Questioning whether the council should approve taxpayer funds for Kitchen Democracy, Councilmember Kriss Worthington contends that the website caters to a narrow segment of the Berkeley population—largely the southeast hills area. 

The city should not “subsidize something limited to a geographic area, economics or ethnicity,” Worthington said  

Vogel and Carini founded Kitchen Democracy especially for people interested in local politics but who can’t get to city meetings to express themselves. Vogel does not dispute the fact that most people who sign on to his website live in the southeast hills area where he lives. 

“It’s not by design,” he said. “That’s where we know people.” 

Vogel said he’s expanding the geographic content. The first District 2 question will be coming on line soon: people will be asked about speeding in the Addison Street-Acton Street area. 

Noting that some of Berkeley’s lower-income residents, many without Internet access, live in this area, the Planet asked how Vogel might get a true sense of what the neighbors want. 

People can respond by mail, he said, further arguing, “Any public process gets skewed results.” For example, only a limited number of people go to City Hall to address the council, he said. 

When asked whether the website might become a support for Wozniak’s re-election campaign, Vogel said it would not. He would be posting comments from all the candidates. 

One question—about whether the Elmwood Hardware store should be allowed to add three housing units to its building—drew 304 votes. All the other questions on the site have drawn fewer than 100. 

Councilmember Dona Spring said Monday that she was still trying to decide if she would support the contribution. The website serves “a very selective group,” she said. “There is a fine line between what is political and what is the public good.”