Column: The Public Eye: The Privatization of Berkeley Government

By Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday February 27, 2007

It was just over a year ago that neighbors of Ashby BART rose up in protest against plans to put a 300-unit “transit village” on the station’s west parking lot. At stake in the ensuing, nearly yearlong struggle was something more basic than land use, namely citizens’ right to have a meaningful say in the public decisions that affect their lives.  

If the Ashby BART debacle were an isolated incident, it would be disturbing enough. What’s truly alarming is that that scheme now looks part of a movement to privatize Berkeley government. Two other projects coming out of City Hall, North Shattuck Plaza and Sustainable Berkeley, have recently generated controversy about lack of public notice and accountability.  

With North Shattuck Plaza, the council has again authorized a private entity to develop public property. The rationale for this delegation of authority was the same as the one used to justify the Ashby BART arrangement: the city doesn’t have the resources to do this work itself, so we’re turning it over to the private sector. 

As with the transit village, the city did not issue a request for proposals but simply contracted with a familiar party—in this case, very familiar: North Shattuck Plaza Inc.’s board includes both a sitting and a former councilmember (respectively, Laurie Capitelli and Mim Hawley) as well as the current chair of the planning commission (David Stoloff). Once again, the neighbors, including many merchants, were left out of the loop, with the same, predictable result: an explosion of resentment at the developers’ failure to consult the community.  

Thank in part to its name, which incorporates the most politically disarming adjective of the day, Sustainable Berkeley (SB) has provoked less criticism, even though it has the potential to affect the city’s future, including its future land use, far more radically than a pedestrian plaza or even a transit village. In July 2006 the council gave the newly formed organization $133,700 on consent (no discussion). The city manager’s report described SB as “a multi-stakeholder partnership between the City, business, civic and education institutions … to leverage resources and improve coordination among Berkeley’s sustainability efforts, and to implement the Sustainable Business Action Plan.” As far as I can tell, the council’s action was ignored by the press and the public.  

Not so Mayor Bates’ current request to give Sustainable Berkeley another $100,000 to help the city prepare a greenhouse emissions reductions plan. That request appears on the council’s Feb. 27 consent agenda. 

In last weekend’s Planet, reporter Judith Scherr delved into the propriety of SB’s administration and funding. Scherr cited the list of questions sent to the council on Feb. 18 by community member Sharon Hudson. Was the contract open to competitive bidding? If not, why not? If so, why was Sustainable Berkeley chosen? What is SB’s track record of successfully completed projects? (To all appearances, none.) What is its relationship to UC? (Two of its eight board members are from Cal, both in development positions.)  

Unbeknownst to Hudson, on Feb. 15 I had sent my own questions to the mayor’s chief of staff, Cisco DeVries. DeVries began working half time with Sustainable Berkeley on greenhouse gas reduction as of Feb. 1, a month before the council was scheduled to act on the $100,000 allocation that would pay his salary and, presumably, then some. (Unlike the July 2006 funding request, the mayor’s appeal doesn’t come with a budget.) I’d heard through the grapevine that Sustainable Berkeley had held a meeting on Feb. 8, but I’d been unable to find any notice on either SB’s website or the city’s community calendar. Was the meeting noticed? I asked, and if so, where? DeVries replied that notice had been sent out to various email lists compiled by the mayor’s office, and that he’d also told a few reporters about the meeting. 

After four years in City Hall, DeVries ought to know that mentioning a meeting to reporters and alerting the people on his boss’s email lists hardly constitutes adequate public notice. When I suggested that future Sustainable Berkeley’s proceedings should be noticed like commission meetings, he emailed back: 

“Part of the reason to have Sustainable Berkeley on contract is to avoid the problem of it coming down to me having the time to post things on the web. The San Francisco sunshine ordinance has a provision for these types of meetings. (We also imported the provision into Berkeley’s draft ordinance.) It has pretty clear rules about posting and public participation. They have worked well in the past and the folks at Sustainable Berkeley were planning to follow them.” 

I guess a brazen admission—was SB really set up so as to accommodate his personal schedule?—is better than no admission at all, though I’m not sure DeVries realized that he’d admitted anything, much less anything brazen. As authorization for Sustainable Berkeley, he and Tom Bates point to Measure G. Approved by 81 percent of Berkeley voters last November, Measure G authorized the mayor to “work with the community” to adopt plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Berkeley by 80 percent.  

But Measure G said nothing about creating a costly bureaucratic fiefdom that operates outside the city’s regular procedures and laws or about hiring a consultant, Timothy Burroughs, who, Scherr reported, has already been engaged via a sole-source contract and whose salary remains a secret. Berkeley has an active Office of Energy and Sustainable Development, as well as at least six relevant commissions—Energy, Environment, Solid Waste, Transportation, Public Works, Planning—that could and should collaborate in overseeing the preparation of a bold emissions reduction plan.  

Berkeley also has a Fair Representation Act, which says that each councilmember has an appointee to each commission. By contrast, Sustainable Berkeley is a creature of the Mayor’s Office, filled exclusively with Bates appointees. If the mayor really wants to work with the community—the whole community—then he should do so through the commissions and the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development. And instead of citing another city’s sunshine law or a draft of a Berkeley sunshine ordinance that’s been seen by nobody except the insiders of Sustainable Berkeley, he and his associates should abide by the Brown Act, which governs commission and council proceedings. If DeVries doesn’t have time to post meeting notices on the web, then he doesn’t have time to do his new job right. 

The truth is that Sustainable Berkeley is only the latest, the biggest and potentially the most egregious of Tom Bates’ mayoral task forces, all of which violate the spirit and likely the letter of the Fair Representation Act. Which raises the question: Why hasn’t city attorney Manuela Albuquerque advised the mayor and the council that these bodies are improper, if not illegal? Even more troubling, why has the council repeatedly rubber-stamped the mayor’s self-aggrandizing initiatives and other disenfranchising projects such as the Ashby BART transit village and the North Shattuck Plaza?  

On Feb. 27 the council has an opportunity to start reversing the movement toward a privatized City Hall, and at the same time to take a stand for open public process, fiscal responsibility and environmental stewardship. Councilmembers, ask Mayor Bates to come back with a proposal that implements Measure G in a democratic manner and that includes a reasonably detailed budget. If you approve his $100,000 gift to Sustainable Berkeley in its present form, you will have moved us a lot closer to a Berkeley that doesn’t deserve to be sustained.