Editorial: Power Plays Target Commissioners, Poor Folks

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday March 13, 2007

“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” How often in the reign of the current mayor will we find the opportunity to use that now-hackneyed quote from Lord Acton? Tomorrow’s Berkeley City Council agenda offers yet another one. It contains not one but at least two naked power grabs by Mayor Bates, aided and abetted by the so-called ‘moderate’ councilmembers and the sycophantic faction of ex-progressives who have joined them to create the new conservative majority on the city council. (Style note: when both “so-called” and single quotes are used, it means we think the word ‘moderate’ lost all meaning in Berkeley politics years ago, as did ‘progressive’.)  

Grab No. 1: The new ordinance aimed squarely at purging the most knowledgeable members of the city’s boards and commissions, the few who have offered token resistance to the mayor’s policy of all-development-all-the-time, on tonight’s council agenda (Tuesday).  

It wasn’t enough for whoever did the drafting at the mayor’s behest to bar commissioners from serving sequential terms on quasi-judicial commissions, just in case they might actually find out what’s going on. Then a provision was added to keep anyone from being on more than one such commission at a time (as if there were a huge citizen demand to attend tedious meetings). There were three prominent targets: Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman, a retired professor of political science who has forgotten more about drafting zoning regulations than anyone on city staff will ever know; Zoning Commissioner Dave Blake, a neighborhood organizer who manages to be both a small-scale landlord and a tenants’ rights activist; and Jesse Arreguin, a UC senior with a strong interest in affordable housing, who’s been active in local government issues since he was a teenager in San Francisco, who serves on both Zoning and Housing.  

This is a variant on the “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” school of political action. For those of you who missed the Shakespeare course, Dick the Murderer proposed getting rid of lawyers to make sure that no one was around to thwart his nefarious schemes—he was not a good government kind of guy. The targeted three are not actual lawyers, but they’ve made it their business to become knowledgeable about the way zoning regulation works, and they’ve used that knowledge on behalf of citizens to curb the excesses of the building industry as much as possible. 

Case in point: after last Thursday’s Zoning Board meeting I got a frantic late night call from an Ashby Avenue neighbor, a long-term political activist on the state and national level, who’d paid scant attention to local issues (not even reading the Planet!) until they appeared on her doorstep. She was shocked at the way the proposal to transform Wright’s garage into a bar was ramrodded through ZAB with nary a word of protest from most of the commissioners. She did say that “some guy named Dave” laid out exactly what was happening to them for the benefit of the alarmed neighbors, but that he was on the wrong end of the vote, along with a “Jesse” and “some woman.” When I told her that said Dave and Jesse were being kicked off the ZAB, as a card-carrying Prog she was even more shocked.  

But killing the shade-tree lawyers wasn’t enough. (Old-timer’s slang translation: cf. the shade-tree mechanic, who fixed cars in his backyard.) Now someone is trying to drive a stake through their hearts. Into the draft has crept a further refinement, not openly requested at the council meeting where the commissioner-crippling scheme was first discussed. Now those who serve on the Rent Board, the School Board, the Library Board and the newly created Housing Authority are also to be barred from commission service. Not coincidentally, Blake and Arreguin were just elected to the Rent Board. Doesn’t this one violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association? 

Looking for possible defenses against this kind of wholesale attack on commissioners, I dredged up the history of the Fair Representation Initiative, placed on the ballot by citizens in April 1975. Its purpose was to give minority councilmembers Ying Lee and Loni Hancock the opportunity to appoint their own commissioners, at that time the exclusive right of the then council majority, the ancestral tribe of today’s moderates. It said nothing about limiting service to one commission.  

The mayor’s proposal will now curtail the ability of all councilmembers to appoint the commissioners they prefer. I asked someone who was active in the initiative campaign whether this violates the Fair Representation ordinance, and he said it’s “certainly against the spirit of the ordinance,” if not the letter.  

A poignant historic irony is that one of the people who might now be barred from serving on city commissions is former councilmember Ying Lee herself, who agreed to join the Library Board at a time when her presence was needed to restore eroded public confidence in library management. And former-councilmember former-mayor now-assembymember Hancock is the now-wife of then-assemblymember now-mayor Bates, under whose watch the fair representation ideal is being done in. Ah, power! Ah, Berkeley! 

Power Grab No. 1 is so complicated that there’s little space left here for Power Grab No. 2, the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. Who dreamed up this triply-redundant name? The PCE Initiative doesn’t seem to be a real initiative in the legal sense, just a tricky name in the unhallowed tradition of the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative, which many Berkeleyans know meant just the opposite of what its name implies.  

And it’s the same kind of Orwellian double-speak. What the name really means is Public Commons for Everyone Except You, if you should happen to be the tired, the poor or the huddled masses. Let’s hope it’s not a real initiative in the tradition of the disastrous anti-speech ballot measures N and O of about ten years ago, which cost the city a fortune in election spending and legal fees before they were properly struck down in federal court. Bates was an avid sponsor of that expensive boondoggle. Pray that he’s not poised to try it again.