Public Comment

Commentary: Why Measure J Lost

By Alan Tobey
Tuesday November 14, 2006

It’s convenient, of course—and not entirely wrong—to blame the 57-43 defeat of Measure J on greedy developers, conservative businesspeople and negative campaign mailers. But Measure J proponents also need to look in the mirror. Not only were they weakened by others, they contributed to losing the race all on their own. 

As an active centrist opponent of Measure J—one whose name was appropriated for the PAC mailers without permission—I can’t claim to be entirely objective, or to be happy with either extreme camp. But I can analyze the campaign in traditional political terms.  

Judging by endorsements, Measure J simply failed to move beyond its natural preservationist base among neighborhood associations. With the arguable exception of the local Green Party, no major mainstream civic or political group endorsed Measure J. Those groups, who reached their decisions well before the negative mailers dropped, simply were not convinced by the proponents’ argument that Measure J was a better alternative than the City Council’s community-compromise version. To accept the Measure J conspiracy theories, we’d have to believe that the entire Democratic Party establishment—including the moderate Berkeley Democratic Club, the Alameda County Central Committee and our ultraleft Rep. Barbara Lee—are all under the control of a few Berkeley developers and businesspeople.  

As a speaker against J at some of the endorsement meetings, I learned that even citizens in favor of J could see some procedural and structural flaws. Procedurally, a very visible problem was that the proponents wrote the measure entirely within their hyper-preservationist orbit, and never held a single public meeting to receive feedback or suggestions for improvements. This left them looking like a narrow special-interest group uninterested in Berkeley-style participatory democracy—rather like those behind unpopular Measure I.  

Structurally, the proponents had faced an unfortunate calendar. They had to circulate and submit their petition before the LPC and City Council finalized their markup ordinance. However, some of the worst preservationist fears in May and June—such as the potential weakening of structure of merit, or a developer-friendly loophole in the Request for Determination (RFD) procedure—were eliminated by the council before approving a compromise ordinance in July. Final City Council action meant that the original Measure J campaign slogan, “save structure of merit,” simply died on its feet. By late July there was much less left in the bill to fear, making motivating pro-J voters even more difficult. 

To its credit, the Measure J campaign moved from mostly-negative to mostly-positive as the election approached. The final mailer—an upbeat piece on the virtues of preservation—told the truth about why we have a strong LPO today. But it failed to tell the whole truth. It never mentioned that the City Council version of the ordinance was waiting to be enacted, and it did not specifically list the improvements Measure J would bring (by design, those improvements were unremarkable). To voters who had learned there was an alternative, the mailer seemed oddly disconnected from reality. It read as if the election were a referendum on preservation, not a choice between alternative revisions. And that diminished the credibility of the campaign. 

The negative PAC mailers were certainly unfortunate, and definitely misguided. Written by outside hired guns, they were just as disconnected from the actual choice on the ballot as the last pro-J mailer was. Perhaps reflecting the prejudices of their backers, the PAC mailers tried to discredit the entire LPO and its landmarking process—even though none of the possible outcomes would change the standards by which historic resources are designated. Many Berkeley voters knew better than that. 

So we experienced a campaign that, in its final days, had both extremes arguing about issues Measure J would not affect at all, win or lose. Neither side should be proud of that, because what we lost was a reasonable discussion of actual preservation alternatives and possibilities. 

The group of passionate preservationists behind Measure J now faces two alternatives—one anti-democratic and one pro-democratic. 

The first alternative is to file a referendum to overturn the new law the council will enact later this month. This divisive tactic would suspend the law for another two years, until in 2008 Berkeley voters no doubt repudiate their views once again. Doing this would poison their own political agenda for at least that long: nothing they favor will get any attention from an LPC and council they just insulted, more designations might fail on appeal for political reasons, and public sympathy would further dwindle. Taking this obstructionist path would be a shame—new ideas for improving our preservation process, such as neighborhood conservation districts, are ready for public discussion. 

The second and more democratic alternative is “wait and see”—give the new LPO a chance to run and document any problems or negative outcomes. If the council fails to remedy those, then another initiative campaign in 2008 could propose to do so with a better chance to win majority support (it could focus on real problems instead of on imagined enemies).  

In stark terms, here is the Measure J proponents’ choice: Do they really believe in cooperatively advancing preservation efforts in Berkeley, or would they rather be treated for the next two years like North Korea—left to live with their paranoid delusions in total political isolation until their referendum is voted down? I hope can they finally show some willingness to work with the rest of us in carrying forward a sensible preservationist agenda the whole city can support. 


Alan Tobey worked for the passage of the original LPO in 1974 and has supported it ever since.