Public Comment

Commentary: Hunting Moby Tom, the Great White Male

By Doug Buckwald
Friday October 27, 2006

Call me frustrated. Some weeks ago—never mind how long precisely—I set out to try to get straight answers from Mayor Bates about some questionable statements he has made about the recent settlement agreement between the City and the University of California. I dutifully attended campaign forum after forum, patiently waited for the question period, then stood up and carefully aimed my inquiries. But every time it seemed that the mayor would be obliged to give a direct answer to one of my queries, he slipped away into the unfathomable depths. Alas! Did my efforts ultimately prove as fruitless as Captain Ahab’s hunt for the great white whale? We shall see. 


A little background before we embark 

In 2005, the City of Berkeley and the University of California engaged in secret negotiations and reached an agreement to settle the city’s lawsuit over the campus’ 2020 Long Range Development Plan. The terms of this agreement were not revealed to the public until after the document was signed—in spite of the fact that Mayor Bates had made a public promise to allow the community time to review and comment on any such proposed settlement before the city approved it. This singular betrayal of the public trust seriously undermined Berkeley citizens who were trying to put practical limits on UC’s expansion and get effective mitigations for the significant detriments caused by UC’s off-campus growth. 

Recently, Mayor Bates has been contrite about the secrecy issue—claiming that the city attorney “agreed to that condition” without his knowledge. (Hmm…is that really how things work?) But he has been completely unapologetic about the agreement itself, calling it “the best deal we could have gotten.” Neighborhood residents, however, view it in a different light: they regard it as one of the worst deals the city has ever made with UC. They are acutely aware that all the negative impacts of UC’s uncontrolled growth that they already endure—traffic, pollution, parking shortages, noise, and the effects of multiple-year construction projects—will become far worse in the future if UC goes ahead with its plans. So while the city did secure a limited (but far less than adequate) amount of compensation from UC for the city services it uses, it obtained exactly zero effective mitigations for the serious damage Berkeley residents will suffer over the next 15 years while the agreement remains in effect. 


The chase is on 

I charted a course and set sail through the election events: the Livable Berkeley candidates forum, the Willard Neighborhood forum, the Le Conte forum, and last Saturday’s forum at the Unitarian Universalists’ Hall in North Berkeley. I hoped to get answers to three questions: 

1. You have maintained that you effectively represented the interests of Berkeley residents during the negotiations with UC. Can you point to any part of the settlement agreement that includes explicit protection for residents from the significant detriments they currently endure—and which will become far worse—as a direct result of UC’s expansion? 

2. Regarding downtown planning, exactly which elements of planning and development does our city have final unilateral authority over since you signed the agreement with UC? How does this compare with the rights the City had before you signed the agreement? In your response, please take into account the following statements that appear in the actual agreement: (a) “All public meetings regarding the DAP [Downtown Area Plan]…must be jointly planned and sponsored by the city and UC Berkeley.” (b) “Any mitigation measures included in the EIR [environmental impact report] must be acceptable to UC Berkeley…” and (c) “UC Berkeley reserves the right to determine if the DAP or EIR meets the Regents’ needs. The basis for making such a determination would be that the DAP or EIR does not accommodate UC Berkeley development in a manner satisfactory to the Regents.” 

3. You have claimed in many recent campaign speeches that you have established a new “cooperative” relationship with UC. Can you explain how well this new relationship is working in regards to the university’s announced plans for massive construction in the Southeast part of campus? (Your recent remarks about these proposed projects have included the following: “We’re about to go back to battle. These plans are totally unacceptable. We’ll have to sue them again unless they change their course.”) 


Stormy seas 

I soon realized that getting answers to my questions would be a real challenge. First, there was not a lot of time for audience questions, and there were always more people who lined up to speak than would get the chance. To me, this was a clear indication of how little true dialog with the community there has been over the last four years. Everybody seemed to know that this was a rare opportunity, not to be missed. But it also meant that there was pressure from the moderators to limit the audience members to very short questions. This was a major handicap for anyone who wanted to discuss an issue that was at all complex—and let’s face it, most of the important issues facing Berkeley are quite complex. In spite of these odds, I prepared to face my elusive quarry. 

Thar she blows! (The mayor’s campaign flyer, that is) 

As I waited in line at the first forum to ask a question, I happened to spy a flyer from the Bates campaign entitled “UC-City Partnership Agreement Fact Sheet.” I began reading, and quickly became astounded. Some of the statements in the flyer were so blatantly inaccurate that they would have been visible even from the crow’s nest. One statement in particular burst out of the page: UC Berkeley “has agreed—for the first time and from pressure from the city—to follow Berkeley’s existing land use rules for all new buildings on the Southside of campus and in the downtown when the city’s new downtown area plan is completed.” This would be an amazing development if it were true. There’s one small problem, however: it’s not true. In fact, the mayor’s claim is flatly contradicted by a plain declaration in the actual legal agreement: “The Regents will reserve their autonomy from local land use regulation.” (section II, B,1) The meaning of this statement is unambiguous, and it is not qualified or amended by any other statement in the document. Why was the mayor’s flyer proclaiming something that is exactly the opposite of what is true? 

It was suddenly my turn at the microphone. I realized that this was a question that would fit into the limited time frame, and I asked the mayor, ”Is there any language anywhere in the text of the agreement with UC that supports your assertion that the university has agreed to follow our land use laws?” My question hung suspended in mid-air as I awaited his reaction. 

How did Mayor Bates respond? I could describe the thrashing, the twisting and turning, the flying foam, the deep dives into murky side issues—and my well-honed harpoon falling harmlessly into the vast salty deep. Let’s just say he completely evaded my question, and went on to try to convince the crowd of how unquestionably positive the settlement was—adopting the tone and cadence of a religious revival preacher. I would have been able to rebut each and every one of his claims with direct evidence, but there was just no time for that. In the end I barely had time to point out that the mayor had not answered my specific question at all. Nor did he answer it at any of the other candidates forums, where I made a point of repeating the exact same question. 


Why this matters 

Many Berkeley voters do not follow the big picture of local politics, let alone the details. Most often, they read a handful of campaign brochures just before an election. That’s why it is so important that we challenge the false statements that appear in these campaign materials.  

Was Mayor Bates concerned that his campaign flyer might contain misleading statements? Not at all, as was clear from his responses. He is still circulating these flyers because he believes, whatever their accuracy, they will earn him votes—and that’s all that matters. He knows most people are not paying attention. And he might get away with it without any personal consequences during this election. But if he does, the entire city will suffer from the community’s growing distrust of the unaccountable and dishonest political process that has been the chief hallmark of his administration. 


Doug Buckwald is a long-time resident of the Willard neighborhood.