Public Comment

Commentary: A Disenchanted Berkeley Homeowner’s Voting Guide

By Barbara Gilbert
Tuesday October 31, 2006

Since I am known as an advocate for Berkeley homeowners, taxpayers, and neighborhoods, many Berkeleyans have asked me about my local voting choices in the upcoming November 7 election. As do I, many of these long-term Berkeley residents feel politically homeless, disenfranchised, and less than sanguine about the future of middle income homeownership, of our lovely neighborhoods, and of our entire little polity.  

So even though I am underwhelmed by our local ballot options, in the spirit of sharing my version of Homeowner Populism, I offer with humility and some trepidation my voting thoughts and choices. 

For mayor, I am voting for Zelda Bronstein. Zelda is smart, knowledgeable, and fearless, and deserves a ton of respect for her willingness to take on the Bates machine for a meager two-year term. She is totally correct in her analysis of the infamous UC-City Settlement Agreement and in her opposition to overscale buildings, top-down destruction of neighborhoods, and the need to retain our current strong landmarks protections. Also, over the last few years, I have witnessed growth in Zelda in her understanding of the need to mitigate taxation of homeowners, to improve public safety enforcement, and to provide parking for the legitimate parking needs of residents, visitors, and businesses. I continue to hope for more flexibility from Zelda with respect to loosening up some small areas of (large) West Berkeley for essential economic development, and to accepting that, for the time being, Berkeley has more than its fair share of rental housing and so-called affordable housing. 

For City Council Districts 1,4,7 and 8 I am making no recommendations.  

For city auditor, long term incumbent Ann-Marie Hogan is running unopposed. While Ms. Hogan has done a credible job within the narrow way she has been defining the city auditor job, I will be abstaining on this position, which is my usual procedure when there is no choice of candidates and/ or when I know nothing whatsoever about any of the candidates.  

For Rent Board, there a five candidates for five seats, chosen by a cabal of rent board devotees. I will be abstaining on these positions to protest: the lack of candidate choice and landlord representation; a rent control system that allocates benefits without regard to need; small landlords being forced to pay for a social subsidy that is the responsibility of the entire community; the bloated Rent Board bureaucracy that blows more than $3M annually, money that could be far better spent directly on the housing-needy. 

For BUSD Boardmembers, there are five candidates for three slots. Two of the incumbents, Nancy Riddle and Shirley Issel have done a credible job and deserve re-election. Of the three other candidates, David Baggins and Karen Hemphill each have something to offer. David is a smart newcomer with a strong background in educational theory and research who is willing to shake things up and challenge the accepted local practices with respect to such matters as out-of-district enrollment and inadequate academic choices for parents and students. As for Karen, who is now part of the educational ruling junta, I have seen some growth since the 2004 election, toward a less divisive and more sensible approach to the achievement gap, and she will also provide a “representative” of the African-American community. My choice would be David Baggins because the issues he is raising are critical and he has shown appropriate courage in doing so. 

On Measure A, public school funding, I have been enmeshed in this issue but have not yet decided how I will vote. I do want Berkeley to have superb public schools that serve and entice all Berkeley children, and I do believe that BUSD has made substantial improvements over the last few years. I also know that many, many problems remain and there is a long way to go. Yes, this measure is about our children, but the real question is how best to create a better school system over time and how much trust we put in public officials when there is a minimum of democratic feedback and accountability mechanisms. 

This is what I like about Measure A: its stated purposes and fund allocation, as far as they go; the fact that, except for the generous escalator clause, it asks for no more money than currently; and there is some built-in accountability and some reasonable flexibility. Here is what I do not like: the unusual 10-year term that is far too long to allow for democratic accountability to the voters and for potentially changed circumstances such as declining enrollment; there is no provision for reduction and return of taxpayer money based on increased state funding through the Schwarzenegger reallocations (already substantial) and from a possible Proposition 88 victory; also, if BUSD reduced the $1 million cafeteria deficit, the $1 million plus deficit due to student absenteeism, and some of the $2 million cost for excessive bussing, they would have quite a bit more money available and all those taxpayer dollars would not be needed. 

BUSD claims that it will almost collapse if Measure A is defeated. While I simply do not believe this and I strongly object to the kamikaze approach to the voters (similar to what the city did in 2004 prior to the defeat of the four new tax measures), I do think that it would be highly stressful and disruptive to BUSD and to the entire community to have come back to the voters in Spring 2007 with another measure. 

On Measure E, Rent Board Vacancy, I will be voting no since this measure will allow the self-perpetuating Rent Board to appoint a new member in case of vacancy rather than go to the voters, albeit in elections that are usually a joke. 

On Measure F, Gilman Playing Fields I will be voting yes to enable the necessary zoning plan amendments to permit the proposed playing fields and related uses. 

On Measure G, Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, tThe 80 percent reduction in Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a good goal. But the potential components and costs of the proposed implementation plan are not specified. The devil is always in the details, and I do not think I want to vote for this until I see more detail, since our city has a history of setting grandiose goals and then insisting that its’ homeowners bear most of the cost burden. So for now I’ll vote no. 

On Measure H, Impeachment of Bush, Cheney, et al I will be voting NO for three reasons: this measure is a distraction from and substitute for immediate local issues on which our Council should be asking us to vote, such as UC expansion, overdevelopment in our neighborhoods, more downtown parking; Bush is not the devil nor do I smell sulfur and, as a responsible centrist Democrat and American citizen, I would like to get him out of office the proper and less polarizing way—i.e. by voting him out; and three, I am not enamored with Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission, that initiated this measure, and I think that this commission usually distracts us from our numerous local woes and generally does more harm than good. 

On Measure I, Condo Conversion I will vote yes. Berkeley has a high rental housing vacancy rate and a need for more homeowners. Housing prices are generally declining and this measure will enable young families and many tenants to buy into Berkeley at moderate prices. It will be an incentive to upgrade our relatively charming existing housing stock of older homes rather than build more ugly units. It will bring millions of dollars into city coffers via fees, transfer tax, and upgraded property taxes. The measure contains generous provisions for existing tenants to help them purchase and/or relocate. 

On Measure J, Landmarks Preservation I am voting yes. This measure will re-adopt and update our existing landmarks ordinance and help save our landmarks, structures of merit, and historic neighborhoods. A yes vote will pre-empt a noxious alternative measure by the City Council majority which not only would make it easier to demolish structures and destroy neighborhoods, but would also impose substantial permit requirements and costs on ordinary homeowners making simple exterior repairs.  


Barbara Gilbert is a former aide to ex-Mayor Shirley Dean.