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Board Debates Propriety of Using Web Poll as Measure of Public Support

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 13, 2007

Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board members are divided about whether it is appropriate to use public comments from the website to justify approval of the reuse of Wright’s Garage building at 2629-2635 Ashby Ave.  

The zoning ordinance for the Elmwood commercial district states that in order for ZAB to approve the project there has to be evidence of substantial neighborhood and merchant support for the proposed project. 

A Jan. 25 staff finding to ZAB for the proposed project states: “The Elmwood Merchants Association supports the reuse of the building and compliments the work of the project proponent, but have expressed hesitation with the proposed uses and lack of parking in the district.” 

A March 8 staff finding to approve the same project states: “Neighborhood and community support of a restaurant use is evidenced by the positive polling results posted on,” leading some ZAB members to argue at the ZAB meeting Thursday that ZAB was not putting equal weight on opposition through letters and public testimony. 

“Before they could use Kitchen Democracy, the Jan. 25 finding was the only support ZAB had for the project,” ZAB commissioner Dave Blake told the Planet on Friday. “The board needed to make a finding because they wanted to approve the project, so they used the only thing that was available to them to justify it. ZAB ignored all of the testimony in opposition for Wright’s Garage, ignored letters from merchants and neighborhood associations and relied solely on the Kitchen Democracy website to make this required finding.” 

On Thursday Blake voted along with board members Jesse Arreguin and Sara Shumer to deny the project. 

“It’s not that the comments on Kitchen Democracy are not reliable,” he said. “It has some validity. But the decision is an insult to everyone who came to ZAB or wrote to us about the project,” he said, adding that ZAB had received more than 30 letters in opposition. recorded 173 votes in favor of and 20 votes in opposition to the project as of Thursday. 

ZAB board member Michael Alvarez Cohen—councilmember Gordon Wozniak’s appointee to the ZAB—voted in favor of Wright’s Garage Thursday. 

Alvarez Cohen is listed as a board member and strategic advisor for 

ZAB chair Christiana Tiedemann told the Planet that her decision on Wright’s Garage was based on zoning laws and the public hearing as well as the comments on 

“It’s completely incorrect that I didn’t listen to people at the hearing,” she told the Planet on Monday. “I read the comments on Kitchen Democracy. Many of the opponents who listed their message on it were those who showed up at the hearing. Consideration was given to all kinds of comments. Receiving written commentary and public testimony is very important. However, people who don’t oppose the project don’t often come to the meetings. Often they work late or have early morning schedules.” 

Tiedemann said the future use of Kitchen Democracy as a way to gather citizen opinions on issues would depend on whether neighborhood sentiment was required for a project. 

“I guess we have to wait and see how it works out,” ZAB co-chair Rick Judd told the Planet on Friday. “ZAB has always had a traditional set of rules for holding hearings. Now we have a new vehicle, a new technology that the previous set of bodies have not used before. As a retired lawyer, my concern is that everybody has access to the same information and it is preserved as recorded documents, that we not be each looking at something different on the computer screen. The idea of an administrative hearing is to base it on common facts.” 

Judd added that he would tend to give a little more weight to people he could see. 

Board member Arreguin remarked that he was very upset by the board’s decision Thursday. 

“I think it’s unfair that comments on a message board were given more importance then public testimony and letters of opposition. What the ZAB did was wrong,” he told the Planet. 

Robert Vogel—co-founder and president of—told the Planet that the website was not a replacement for other methods of participation.  

“It merely adds another channel,” he said. “Equal weight should be given to all comments, whether it be made at City Hall hearings, through letters, or on the Kitchen Democracy website. If ZAB is ignoring comments made in opposition, then this should not be the case. It’s wrong not to give lots of weight to people who have taken the effort to come to City Hall. But it’s also wrong to ignore people who take the effort to read the issue on Kitchen Democracy and comment on it.” 

Vogel said the website followed the same process that was followed for public testimony at City Hall. 

“Just as you have to fill in your name and address at City Hall or ZAB, a person has to go online and register with his or her address. Ultimately, there is no way to verify whether this is the correct address for both City Hall or Kitchen Democracy,” he said. 

Vogel added that Kitchen Democracy’s membership had grown 70 percent in the last six months. 

“Diversity of our users has increased as well. Sixty percent are now living outside District 8, the district we had first started out with,” he said. 

District 8 councilmember Gordon Wozniak—who had supported Wright’s Garage publicly on Kitchen Democracy—said that the website reached out to a broad group of people. 

“I don’t understand why anyone would make the argument that ZAB favored the comments on Kitchen Democracy over public testimony. Board members are required to look at every kind of citizen input,” he said. 

Wozniak said that if Wright’s Garage were appealed to the City Council, he would ask the city attorney for advice on whether he should recuse himself from voting since he has already posted his opinion about the issue on the website.