Some called proposals the Berkeley City Council debated Tuesday evening on commission restrictions “good government,” but others said imposing limits on the number of years commissioners can serve on one commission and on the number of commissions they can serve on at one time was a political move aimed at squelching the voices of commissioners who question large development projects.
In a 4-5 vote, with Councilmembers Dona Spring, Kriss Worthington, Max Anderson and Linda Maio dissenting, the council approved the content of an ordinance the city attorney will draft for approval in March. The code revision will take effect three months after its final passage, and will apply only to the Zoning Adjustments Board, the Planning Commission, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Housing Advisory Commission. It will restrict commission terms to eight years out of any ten years and will prohibit commissioners from serving on more than one of these commissions at a time.
Other commissions will have no term limits and will not have restrictions on serving on more than one commission.
The original concept as put forward by Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Betty Olds would have prohibited commissioners on all 40 city commissions from belonging to more than one commission and would have restricted them all to eight-year terms over a ten-year period. A loop-hole currently allows commissioners to quit for a few months after serving seven-plus years, then to be reappointed for a new eight-year term.
“There’s a tendency to confuse longevity with knowledge,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, arguing in favor of term limits. “To get advice, it’s not important that [the commission] be a group of experts.”
Capitelli added to the argument for the legislation that “ex-commissioners aren’t going to go away” and are free to add their expertise to commission discussions as members of the public.
Councilmember Darryl Moore also weighed in on the side of limits, arguing that the question was less about the limits themselves than about “closing illegal loopholes” in the ordinance that allows people to serve more than eight-year terms. “I agree with the League of Women Voters that the item before us is good government,” he said.
Addressing the issue of diversity on commissions, Moore, an African American, noted angrily that “having people of color serve on several commissions is tokenism.”
Councilmember Dona Spring, however, said the proposal targets three commissioners whose votes often favor residents over developers: commissioners Jesse Arreguin, Dave Blake and Gene Poschman. They regularly vote in the minority, Spring said. “These people raise good points. Now they don’t want us to have a voice at all.”
Arreguin serves on the Housing Advisory Committee and the Zoning Adjustment Board. Blake has served on the ZAB for more than eight years total and Poschman has served on the Planning Commission for more than eight years. Both resigned after they had served seven years and were later reappointed. Susan Wengraf, long-time aide to Councilmember Betty Olds, a sponsor of the changed rule, has also used this method to serve on commissions for more than eight total years.
Commissioners willing to put time into the research necessary to serve on commissions should not be eliminated, Spring said. “They tend to be the most hard-working people,” she said.
“My commissioner [Poschman] works the hardest and knows Berkeley the best,” Spring said, noting that it was Poschman’s work on the University Avenue Strategic Plan that limited the height of buildings and “infuriated developers.”
Councilmember Max Anderson added that it takes “political courage” to remove commissioners during their terms. “Sometimes people do think they have their positions for life,” he said, arguing that it’s up to the councilmember to take them off the commission when their service is no longer required.
Anderson further argued that the proposal was without substance. “We haven’t vetted this to analyze whether we have a problem,” he said.
Also arguing against the motion, Councilmember Linda Maio said, “I absolutely depend on my appointment to ZAB [and other commissions] for institutional memory. It’s not trivial—it’s a very hard job. For me, I have to have confidence in the person who does the work at that level. I’m concerned about being forced to terminate somebody before I’m ready.”
Maio added in a phone interview Thursday, however, that she is planning to remove Dave Blake, her appointee to ZAB, after his work on the Density Bonus Subcommittee is completed.
Addressing the council, Steven Wollmer, a member of the Housing Advisory Commission, argued that councilmembers’ right to appoint people who would represent their interests would be violated by the ordinance.
Former League of Women Voters President Sherry Smith spoke to the council in favor of the measure, saying it was a “good government” issue, enforcing the eight-year term limits already in place.
She also argued against individuals serving on more than one commission. Smith said the commission she serves on—the Police Review Commission—includes an individual who serves on two commissions and “wastes commission time” by bringing in things from the other commission.
But Michael Sherman, the commissioner to whom Smith was referring, said in a phone interview Wednesday, that by serving on both the Peace and Justice Commission and on the PRC, he has been able to bring the concerns of both the groups together on various occasions.
For example, the PRC is currently looking at regulating situations where the Berkeley police are asked to collaborate with agencies such as Homeland Security. This is a question that is necessarily addressed by both the Peace and Justice Commission and by the PRC, Sherman said.
“Cross-fertilization of ideas of different commissions should be encouraged,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who has appointed student and affordable housing advocate Jesse Arreguin to both the housing and zoning commissions.
In an interview Wednesday, Arreguin agreed, explaining that he has been able to bring his expertise in low-income housing issues that he’s gained by serving on the HAC to commissioners on the ZAB.
“I interviewed 22 people and decided who to appoint to the [Zoning Adjustment Board],” Worthington said, arguing that Arreguin was the most qualified among them.
“I think I have the right to appoint the most qualified person,” he said. The proposal “is thoroughly undemocratic. It’s not good for the city of Berkeley.”