Editorial: The Bates Mayoralty: A Tale of Opportunities Missed

By Becky O’Malley
Friday October 06, 2006

Many readers seem to assume that the Planet will automatically endorse former Planning Commission Chair Zelda Bronstein, who is on leave from her job as one of the Planet’s Public Eye columnists, in her campaign for mayor of Berkeley. But it’s not that simple. We do have enormous respect for Bronstein’s experience and expertise in all matters related to the current and future state of the city fabric, and for her keen intelligence and quick mastery of new ideas. Since she’s been contributing to the paper, she’s become a friend as well as a colleague. But that shouldn’t be the whole story. Following the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” theory of management, it is appropriate to see what Tom Bates has done with his opportunities before deciding whether to support a change. He’s generally conceded to be personable and friendly, but is that enough? Under our charter, the mayor of Berkeley is able to establish a tone and a direction for the efforts of the City Council, but he or she must lead by example and exhortation rather than by exerting power.  

Berkeley’s city charter establishes a “weak mayor” form of government. In theory, the mayor has no more power than that of an extra at-large councilmember plus a few ceremonial duties. The city manager and the people he hires pretty much run the show most of the time.  

Jerry Brown engineered a charter amendment to become Oakland’s first strong mayor, but then squandered his opportunities. Some cities have even weaker mayors than Berkeley. Santa Cruz, for example, gets a new mayor every year, elected by the city council from among its own members in rotation.  

Bates came to Berkeley with a lot of good will on his side, left over from 20 years of uncontested service in the state Legislature. He started with what was supposed to be an exciting new era, based on having a progressive majority: Shirek, Worthington, Maio, Spring, Breland and himself. It would have been possible for him to accomplish some of the goals which have traditionally been endorsed by progressive candidates in Berkeley: affordable housing, citizen-centered planning, civil rights.  

But his term began with bad news for progressives (or even conventional liberals of any stripe, not just far-lefties). He grabbed a bunch of copies of the Daily Cal which endorsed his opponent and threw them in the trash. That foolish temper tantrum whittled what should have been his bully pulpit down to soapbox size. Berkeleyans who consider the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution to be their political gospel were well and truly shocked.  

One of his associates, a respected civil rights attorney, sent out an e-mail to rally supporters in the face of an uproar which some of the shocked people were planning for Bates’ first City Council meeting. It said, in part: 

“No fair person can seriously describe Tom as anything but a staunch defender of the First Amendment in all its parts and all its glory.” 

Well, yes. But actually, no. Unfortunately, that e-mail reminded me of the sign which had been in my garage since 1994, filched from a telephone pole at election time: “Assemblyman Bates Says to Vote Yes on Measures N &O.” That year I emerged dormouse-like from a long political slumber to discover that some of the “progressives” that I’d been voting for, whom I’d been trusting to mind the store, were pushing a ballot measure aimed at punishing people for asking for money on the street. In other words, they were supporting banning the content of a panhandler’s speech instead of the time, place and manner in which it is exercised—an obviously unconstitutional attack on the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment. The ballot argument for these measures was signed by, among others, ex-Mayor Loni Hancock and her husband, Assemblyman Tom Bates. I met a good number of the best people in Berkeley in the campaign against N & O, but we lost the election. The resulting ordinance was of course overturned in federal court, as we predicted it would be, thanks to the ACLU. It was an expensive boondoggle, with Berkeley and Bates on the wrong side. 

That’s two strikes against the First Amendment for Bates. Strike three was the letter which appeared in this space a few weeks ago, signed by Mayor Bates and his spouse among other pols, castigating the Planet for printing a reader-submitted op-ed which some readers found offensive and parrotting the completely untrue charge that editors had refused to meet with the offended parties. Most courageous local politicians did not allow themselves to be bullied into signing that letter, but Bates was not among them.  

The mayor of Berkeley can be a leader in defending civil liberties and promoting open government, but Bates has not been that leader. It’s taken the threat of a lawsuit from library users to focus his attention on allowing adequate public comment at city meetings, and the problem hasn’t been solved. Bates’s backroom bad deal with the University of California—which opponents call the “secret sellout”—stands in stark contrast to the Santa Cruz city council, which even placed a measure on the ballot to restrict unmitigated UC expansion.  

But what about his record in other areas? Something seems to be wrong with the way misdeeds by police officers are being handled, though the full story is still being kept secret. Residents in some neighborhoods have turned to small claims court to address on-going crime problems which city authorities have not managed to solve. Beyond that, there’s not much to talk about.  

“The Bates Updates”—the mayor’s city-funded press releases—are still available on the Internet, and they make pretty thin reading. There’s lot of talk about supporting education and kids, the functional equivalent of baby-kissing, but council members and mayors can’t do much in that area. There’s a lot of feel-good environmental arm-waving, conferences, committees, but little in the way of significant accomplishment.  

Land-use planning is the last bastion of significant power and responsibility for local governments. In this arena Zelda Bronstein has shown herself time and again to be on the side of neighborhood residents and opposed to outside corporate development interests. Bates, on the other hand, has been the developers’ best friend on the council.  

His term started out with a much-ballyhooed “Task Force on Planning and Development” which was supposed to “fix Berkeley’s broken development process.” In fact, the development engine, never broken, has continued to chug along smoothly, just as it did under Bates’ predecessors. Big ugly boxes now dominate Berkeley’s skyline, overshadowing neighboring flatlands homes.  

The Bates task force used hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of city staff time, was heavily stacked in favor of developers, and produced nothing of value for local residents. The task force’s single positive idea, from the citizens’ perspective, was the 4’x8’ yellow information signs which were supposed to be erected on proposed building sites, and even those were shrunk to 2x4 by the planning department in the end. The worst product of that task force has been the Mayor’s lengthy and expensive effort to gut the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which will still be in the works unless Measure J, the citizen initiative to retain the LPO, succeeds. 

Downtown Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue have been allowed to slide under the Bates regime, despite the vigorous efforts of Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring, who represent those areas, to hold the line. Longtime Berkeley businesses are shutting their doors. The useful Telegraph Avenue Association has been de-funded and homeless and mental health services have been cut, though some are being restored as the election nears.  

Almost no affordable housing units for families have been built since Bates has been in office, though many expensive new apartments are being condo-ized for well-off buyers. The backhanded effort by Bates cronies to build still more pricey units on the Ashby Bart parking lot, with the usual pittance of lower-priced units as cover, produced outrage from neighbors when it was revealed, but Bates is still pursuing it, undeterred by public opinion. 

What does all this add up to? It’s hard to defeat an incumbent backed by big developer bucks, but there are many reasons to conclude that Tom Bates doesn’t deserve a vote of confidence telling him to stay the course for two more years. Zachary Running Wolf and Christian Pecaut have made some good points about Bates’ record, but neither is ready for prime time. Anyone who thinks that Berkeley deserves a better deal than it’s gotten in the four years of the Bates tenure should be voting for Zelda Bronstein in this election.