Editorial: More Attacks on Citizen Participation Rumored

By Becky O’Malley
Friday December 08, 2006

Back in the olden days when I was a kid, we traveled a lot by streetcar, and sometimes by train. One interesting feature of rail travel is that long before you can see your streetcar or train coming, you can tell that it’s getting near by leaning over and putting your ear next to the rails (which was a lot easier when I was closer to the ground). This phenomenon came to mind last week as I heard rumbles about new moves in the City Council’s agenda committee to limit the power of citizen-based commissions. I’ll leave the exact details to the news reporters to document when they actually come into view, but the rumblings from the rails threw up two possible strategies: further term-limiting commissioners and limiting individuals to service on one commission at a time. 

Both of these must seem to the average Goo-Goo (naive believer in Good Government) to be marvelous pro-democracy innovations. What could be better that making sure that lots of different citizens get to serve on the Zoning Adjustments Board or the Public Works Commission?  

Well, the problem is that doing a good job on commissions requires the acquisition of a lot of arcane knowledge before you can even begin to contribute to intelligent decisions. Anyone who’s watched the ZAB in action knows that there are a couple of members who absolutely know the difference between a use permit and a variance, and there are other members who have the good sense to keep their mouths shut because they have no idea what’s going on. It’s the commissioners in the first category who are targeted by term limits.  

A lawyer I know always quotes the professor from the first day of her administrative law class: in any regulated industry, the regulators are eventually captured by the regulatees. Often, it’s not even corruption, it’s just that people who do business with each other repeatedly over the years tend to get friendly.  

In the real-estate development industry which is big-time in Berkeley right now, that means that staffers in the planning department are on first-name terms with Patrick and Darryl and Chris and Evan, and not with the neighbors who happen to be next door to the various target sites. (You’ll hear howls of outrage from the City of Berkeley’s Planning Department when they read that last sentence, but it’s not a criminal charge, just a fact of life in the world.) And it doesn’t help that the planning department is completely funded by development fees. 

The only chance members of the general public have to escape this rule is that there are a few citizens (probably 15, tops) who have donated enough of their personal time to commissions in the past to know what’s happening, to give the pros a run for their money. The same scenarios surface with every project, with the same claques brought in to lobby for the developers, but commissioners who haven’t seen these acts before are much more gullible.  

As I’m writing this, I hear a commotion in the cotoneaster outside my window, whistles and loud rustling of wings. I can’t actually see what’s going on without changing to my distance glasses, but because it’s the time of the year that berries are on the tree I’m pretty sure that the cedar waxwings are back. I don’t have to see their yellow bellies and their Lone Ranger masks, because I’ve seen them before and know what they sound like. That’s how the experienced commissioners identify bad deals for the public—they’ve heard the same thing before. 

It’s true that canny commissioners have been known to evade the current eight-year term limit by resigning after seven years and a few months and then getting re-appointed, but is that a bad thing? One proposal which is being talked up is an attempt to defeat this strategy by allowing service only for eight years out of 10. This is ironic in a city whose mayor took the term limits on the state Legislature to court (unsuccessfully) when he was an assemblymember. Berkeley has been pretty well served by long-term councilmembers like Betty Olds, but in any event term limits should start at the top if they’re at all desirable. The long-time commissioners bring a wealth of knowledge, which the city couldn’t possibly pay for, to bear on the problems they address, and getting rid of them makes little sense. 

The other scheme being bruited about is limiting commissioners to a single commission. It’s not as if all commissions are all full at all times—in fact some councilmembers have a very hard time filling vacancies. Reporters soon spot the commissioners who are on top of their game: who have the intelligence and the energy to know all the facts about what’s going on. Jesse Arreguin is a good example: a smart, dynamic undergraduate who’s on the Rent Board, the Housing Advisory Commission, the Zoning Board and perhaps more. If you want something complicated explained to you, he’s your guy. He’s the kind of talent Berkeley couldn’t afford if we had to pay for it, as someone undoubtedly will when he graduates and enters the job market. Such people are rare enough, and if they can make time to contribute to more than one body it’s a plus, not a minus.  

In George Bush II’s first term, he seemed to believe that he had a mandate from the people to enact his conservative agenda (even though some believed he’d lost the 2000 election.) He did what he wanted, ignoring even the Congress when it suited him by using the now-notorious signing statements to explain why he didn’t have to follow the law. As advised by Karl Rove, he gussied up his unpopular activities with populist rhetoric: The Healthy Forest Initiative was a coverup for more logging. And he made appointments to everything from the FCC to the Supreme Court to carry out his program. John Kerry wasn’t the right candidate to send Bush the message that he didn’t really have a mandate, so Bush II’s second term started out as more of the same. But a funny thing happened on the way to 2006: People finally caught on and figured out how to let him know that at the ballot box. Now it’s starting to look like the Bush dynasty might not be forever after all. 

The local dynasty (perhaps a more apropo term than “machine”) looks like it’s heading for some similar hubris, complete with Rovian double-speak (labeling the backroom deal which produced an emasculated landmark ordinance a “citizen compromise” in the pre-election propaganda) and signing statements (adding a last-minute clause to the new ordinance saying that the noxious parts couldn’t be repealed separately because of said deal.) They should keep in mind that even given the vast sums spent to defeat it Measure J got 43 percent, and by the time a referendum is voted on two years from now the voters might even have caught on.  

And that while Bush II was able to pack the Supreme Court during his first term, he won’t be able to do more damage in this term, which is why the City Council should think twice before listening to the blandishments of those who hope to weaken the city’s still vigorous and useful commissions any further.