Public Comment

Commentary: Bates Plays Politics With Voters, Animal Shelter and School District Finances

By Zelda Bronstein
Friday November 03, 2006

In November 2002, 68 percent of Berkeley voters said yes to Measure I, which authorized the city to issue $7.2 million of bonds for an urgently needed new animal shelter. Given that the other four city tax measures on the ballot failed to get the necessary two-thirds approval, Measure I’s victory was particularly impressive. Yet four years later, the city has not even secured a site, much less broken ground, for a new facility. Nothing. 

This failure is the fault of one person above all: Tom Bates. Working behind the scenes, the mayor blocked a plan to locate a new shelter at the former, two-acre Urban Ore site at Sixth and Gilman. The plan, endorsed on Nov. 4, 2003 by the joint Council/Humane Commission Animal Shelter Committee, involved a land swap. In 2000 the Sixth and Gilman site was purchased by the Berkeley Unified School District for its new bus yard. The subcommittee unanimously recommended that the city use the $1.5 million of the bond money earmarked for land acquisition to buy a portion of the 3.4-acre McCauley Foundry site at 811 Carleton, and then trade the Carleton property for the parcel at Sixth and Gilman. Notes from the committee’s November meeting indicate that School Boardmember John Selawsky “attended … and spoke strongly in favor of the swap.”  

But the city never formally approached the BUSD about the trade, in large part because of Tom Bates’ objections to siting an animal shelter—and for that matter, a bus yard—on Gilman Street. The mayor’s views were summed up by his chief of staff, Cisco de Vries, in a Sept. 29, 2003 e-mail (which I first saw only a few days ago) sent to Mal Burnstein, the mayor’s close political adviser and designated emergency stand-in as mayor. De Vries wrote: 



Tom’s position is that the Gilman corridor from 2nd to San Pablo is an ideal spot for retail development in the city. If we want economic development and the $$ that brings the city, here is our chance. He has been really forceful with the school district that he will do whatever he has to do to prevent a bus yard there. (Also, we have been working to find them another spot, including at AC Transit or at the Foundry location). 

He has been 100% clear that he will not support the animal shelter there either. That site can be the lynch [sic] pin of the new retail development in the area. It won’t fulfill that purpose as the animal shelter. 

Give me a call if you want to chat about this. 


Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan subsequently met with the Animal Shelter Committee and told its members that a land swap with the BUSD would be impossible, since public bonds monies from Measure I could not be used to purchase land that would then be traded for another parcel. In fact, Measure I referred only to money to be used “to acquire property, if necessary, and to construct or rehabilitate a building for an animal shelter which meets the requirements of state law.”  

Since then, efforts to site and build a new shelter have come to a standstill. Given Tom Bates’ track record, a new shelter may never be built as long as he is mayor.  

Moreover, Bates’ determination to Emeryville-ize West Berkeley has hurt Berkeley public schools. The BUSD’s plans for a bus yard at Sixth and Gilman have been stalled in the city’s Planning Department for a year and a half. Meanwhile, the district is spending $500,000 a year to rent three sites in West Berkeley to house its buses. In an Oct. 22, 2004 letter to city planner Greg Powell, BUSD Director of Facilities Lew Jones wrote: “The ongoing rental costs required to pay for the three sites is financially crippling the district.” Set that reality against Bates’ claims about all he has done for Berkeley public schools in the past four years. 

With the mayoral election less than a week away, voters would do well to ponder this episode. Tom Bates has behaved like a one-man City Council, dictating major city and school district policy from behind closed doors.  

When I’m mayor, I will ask the council to to do whatever possible to move forward with a new animal shelter. I will “liberate” the BUSD bus yard. And I will renew Berkeley’s commitment to open and accountable government. 


Zelda Bronstein is a candidate for mayor of Berkeley.