Editorial: Setting the Historic Record Straight

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday November 28, 2006

Not too long ago the Planet received a letter from a reader asserting that E.Y. Harburg, the author of “Happy Days are Here Again,” was once a Republican. The writer is a frequent and cordial correspondent, and we didn’t want him to embarrass himself in public, so instead of running the letter we wrote back respectfully and said that we were positive that Yip Harburg, whose son we had known, was never a Republican. We didn’t cite sources, since we didn’t have any on hand, but we urged the writer to check his. After a bit of back and forth, he discovered that the author of the Democratic fight song “Happy Days” was indeed a Republican, but that Yip Harburg (a noted leftist) didn’t write it. Case closed. 

This exchange prompted some thought about the question of whether the opinion pages should be open to supposedly factual assertions that the editors know to be untrue. It’s no favor to readers to fill their heads with pseudo-facts, and it’s a disservice to the reputation of the erring writer. Ah, but how do we decide what’s not true? And if we think it’s untrue, when do we find time to research what we remember? The editor’s memory is aging like the rest of her—last week I relocated Illinois to Ohio, for example.  

But in some cases, where we’ve been part of the action ourselves, it’s hard to let misstatements of fact slip by. This is the case with the remarkable string of untruths and half-truths which were ginned up and published by the Chamber of Commerce as part of their successful campaign to defeat Measure J. In several cases letter writers probably didn’t know they were repeating a manufactured falsehood, but that doesn’t make their statements any truer. For example, last week we printed an update of a commentary by a West Berkeley property owner and developer which had been submitted too late for pre-election publication. It purported to recount the history of six years of attempts to revise the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, a subject which I know in painful detail since I was on the Landmarks Preservation Commission for four years of the six.  

The author said that “In a clear case of anti-democracy in action, initiative backers sought to supersede six years of community dialogue and compromise. While anti-growth activists repeatedly referred to Landmarks Ordinance revisions under consideration by the City Council last summer as ‘the Mayor and Councilman Capitelli’s draft,’ that is a distortion. In fact, the revisions are the product of extended discussions between homeowners, preservationists, businesspeople, and city planning staff dating back to 2000.” 

Well, no. In 2000 the city manager and the council simply charged the LPC with amending the LPO to correct a purported conflict between the ordinance’s timetables and the state of California’s permit streamlining act, which had been passed after the LPO was written. As the only attorney on the LPC, and an inactive one at that, it took me a while to figure out, with the help of outside legal advice, that one very simple change of wording would have accomplished that goal, and quickly. I repeatedly brought this fact to the attention of City Attorney Zac Cowan, who was charged with drafting the needed amendment, and he never denied it. But he had his own agenda.  

For the whole time the ordinance was under consideration, Cowan was an officer or board member (now he’s vice-president) of Greenbelt Alliance, an advocacy organization which promotes “smart growth”—filling in open spaces within cities in hopes of preserving open spaces (“greenbelts”) outside of cities. Its goals are laudable, but some of its ideas are now viewed as naïve. (How many homebuyers will pass up suburban single-family homes with yards in favor of condos on South Shattuck in Berkeley?) 

In retrospect it seems clear to several of us—who participated in good faith and made numerous compromises in the LPC’s four-year effort to produce an acceptable draft of a revised ordinance—that Cowan’s successive drafts were designed to make it easier to tear down older buildings and replace them with denser infill. His personal espousal of the Smart Growth ideology was the motivation for the language he recommended, a clear conflict of interest. 

The opinion commentator continued: “Recall that back in 2000 the City Council requested a review of the ordinance in response to a spate of complaints about LPC malfeasance…In a number of instances commissioners ‘protected’ properties with no historical merit in order to block development, when the city’s other land-use processes were not expected to generate the outcome desired by anti-growth extremists or hostile neighbors.” 

In fact, from 2000 to 2004 complaints were few and far between, and almost always from property owners who wanted to tear down genuinely historic properties in order to build new developments. In every case that I can recall, such property owners eventually got their way, since the LPC was usually overruled by a developer-funded City Council. But the pro-growth extremists wanted more. 

When Tom Bates took over as mayor in 2003, one of his first acts was to launch a Task Force on Permitting and Development, chaired by Laurie Capitelli. It was dominated by developers, major contributors to Bates and Capitelli’s recent campaigns, with only one neighborhood activist included as a member. Virtually its only product was a mandate for city planning staff to produce a new LPO draft, which eventually materialized. 

Opponents of Measure J, including the opinion commentator, made much of the final “endorsement” of the resultant draft, quite properly ascribed to Bates and Capitelli, by the Landmarks Preservation Commission which was in office at the time it was finished. But that endorsement was engineered by the time-honored technique of packing the panel.  

The process started with the mayor’s first appointment to the LPC when he took office: branding guru Steven Donaldson, now known to be the author of the Chamber PAC’s notoriously mendacious postcard campaign against Measure J. But Donaldson showed little interest in preservation—he never came to a single meeting, and was eventually replaced by another of Bates’ longtime political allies. As the time came for the LPC’s final vote on the draft, Max Anderson replaced Maudelle Shirek’s LPC appointee with Burton Edwards, an architect and District 8 resident with no ties to Anderson’s flatlands district, and Bates buddy Darryl Moore appointed realtor-developer and Chamber PAC Chair Miriam Ng to the commission. These changes were enough to carry the LPC vote on Bates-Capitelli. 

And those “extensive discussions” of the new ordinance which started under the Bates regime? In the last year many meeting with all sorts of people, including credulous preservationists, were held Sacramento-style, behind closed doors in the mayor’s office, but these produced few homeowners or preservationists willing to endorse the product at the public hearings held after the draft was submitted to council. 

How long does it take to get true facts in front of voters, especially in the face of a well-funded disinformation campaign? Forty-three percent of them in the last election supported Measure J, remarkable under the circumstances. The last 8 percent needed to put it over the top were probably hornswoggled by the Donaldson/PAC postcards, and might have changed their minds if they’d known the postcards were phony. Is two years long enough to educate these voters to change their choice? If a referendum goes on the ballot, we’ll find out.