Public Comment

Commentary: How the City Council Has Hurt Local Businesses

By Elliot Cohen
Friday November 03, 2006

With most Berkeley campaigns focusing on development, an important issue receiving too little attention is what City Hall is not doing to support local businesses. 

In this regard a July 18 City Council vote is very revealing. At issue was a proposal by the city manager to give Office Max, a Wal-Mart type stationary chain, a three-year purchase contract worth over one-and-a-half million dollars. 

During public comment period I asked City Council to reject the proposal and award the contract to local Berkeley businesses. My preference was dividing the contract into three separate purchase contracts, thus saving three local stationary shops by awarding them over $150,000 annually in city purchases over the next three years. 

No one on the City Council supported my preference, but Councilmember Spring did try to help our businesses by proposing the Office Max contract be granted for one year and directing staff to award contracts for the final two years to local businesses. Neither the mayor, nor any other councilmember would second Spring’s proposal. 

The same city employee who created a scandal by neglecting to collect property taxes for several Kennedy properties claimed that dividing contract up in any manner would be too costly. Although dividing the contracts may have added an extra $20,000 or so, over three years, an additional $7,000 annually would easily be compensated for by the tax revenue and other benefits of local purchasing. 

On the campaign trail or off, politicians never tire of saying they care about our local businesses. Berkeley voters need to watch what they do, and ignore what they say. When City Hall had an opportunity to help our local businesses the mayor and four councilmembers instead gave $1.5 million of our tax money to a corporate chain instead of to our businesses. This callous disregard for our local stores was especially significant, coming, as it did, within weeks of the closing of Cody’s Books, and a week after an announcement that Radston’s, a local stationary store, would soon close its doors. 

The mayor, who was the last to vote, announced “well I guess I get to make the decision,” and then decided to vote against Berkeley businesses. Joining him were Councilmembers Anderson, Captellia, Maio and Wozniak. By law five affirmative votes were necessary to grant the contract. With two councilmembers absent, Moore, to his credit, abstaining, and Dona Spring voting no, any one of the five could have changed the outcome. 

More pathetic than the result were the excuses. The mayor recently commented that the reason Radston’s went out of business was due to a rent increase, and had nothing to do with the failure to offer city contract to Radston’s. Clearly, an additional $150,000 in annual purchases would have enabled Radston’s to pay the rent increase! 

The Mayor also claimed he “had no choice” and had to vote for the contract. In fact they had at least four choices, any of which would have benefited local businesses. First, they could simply vote down the proposal. Second, they could have accepted Dona Spring’s proposal and vote to contract for one year and direct staff to arrange that future contracts go to local businesses. Third, they could have done as I preferred, and offered separate three-year contracts of approximately $500,000 each to three local stores. As a fourth choice, they could have adopted a policy that “Request For Proposal’s” give local businesses the opportunity to compete unless there is a vital reason not to do so. 

This fourth point is vital. A “Request For Proposal” (known as an RFP) states the criteria a bidder must meet to qualify for a contract with the city and effectively determines what businesses will qualify for the contract. It is possible to write an RFP in a manner that excludes all local businesses, and that is exactly what happened here. The RFP required all transactions, including accounting reports, be available on line. An inability to meet the qualification about generating accounting reports is why ALKO, a local store that did bid on the contract, was disqualified. Although ALKO did have on-line ordering capacity their system could not do everything on line, so the city went with the corporate giant. 

The sad fact is that the three incumbents who voted against our city are likely to be returned to office. But we can register our disappointment in the hypocrisy by telling them what we think and by voting against Mayor Bates and Councilmembers Maio and Wozniak. 


Elliot Cohen also urges a yes vote on Berkeley Measure H (impeachment), Measure J (citizen’s Landmark Ordinance), Measure A (schools) and state Proposition 87 (oil tax), and ask they vote no on Measure I (evict tenants for condo’s), and state Propositions 85 (parental notification of abortion) and 90 (preventing regulation of development).