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City Council Agrees to Limit Commissioner Terms

By Judith Scherr
Friday March 16, 2007

Berkeley City Counclimember Laurie Capitelli said an ordinance approved 6-3 Tuesday night to limit the time commissioners can serve on key commissions and to restrict service to just one of these commissions at a time is good government. 

But others argued that limits placed on those serving the city as commissioners unfairly restricts councilmembers’ ability to select commissioners. 

In other matters the council approved two of the three proposals from the Community Environmental Advisory Commission aimed at reducing emissions from Pacific Steel Castings, supported litigation that calls former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a war criminal, and opposes military action in Iran. 

Councilmembers Dona Spring, Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson opposed the ordinance that imposes an eight-year lifetime limit for people appointed to the Housing Advisory Commission, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board. The law also limits commission membership to one of those four quasi-judicial commissions. It lifts term limits for service on other commissions. 

A clause that would have prevented commissioners from serving on one of the four key commissions and also serving on the school board, rent board, library board or the housing authority was withdrawn by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. The notion had not been raised in public council discussions during which the council approved the ordinance in concept and it was not noted in the staff report accompanying the ordinance.  

Worthington argued against the way the ordinance was changed, saying the clause adding the rent, library, housing and school board to the mix was “snuck in here,” and “buried in the ordinance.”  

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque told the Planet during a break in the council meeting that she added the clause because she thought it was consistent with the council intent to limit commissioners from sitting on more than one key board or commission. 

Addressing the part of the ordinance that limits a commissioner to sitting on only one key commission, Worthington said it disproportionately affects minorities and students. “This is not remotely good government,” he said. 

These limits, that won’t kick in until July, will affect two commissioners, both minorities and students: Jesse Arreguin, a Latino serves on the HAC and the ZAB, and Nicholas Smith, an African American, serves on the Labor Commission as well the Housing Advisory Commission.  

Capitelli said the term limits portion of the ordinance simply cleans up a loophole in the current term limits law, preventing commissioners from quitting a commission a couple of months short of eight years, then getting back on the commission to begin a new eight-year term, but Councilmember Dona Spring said she believes the measure targets specific commissioners: Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman and Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Dave Blake. It will also impact Susan Wengraf, Councilmember Betty Olds’ aide and her appointment to the Planning Commission. 

Worthington argued that if changes on the commissions were warranted, Maio, who had appointed Blake, could have removed him and Spring could have removed Poschman.  

“If it weren’t for Gene Poschman, we wouldn’t have the General Plan today,” Spring said. 

“People hope to limit choices of other people,” Steve Freedkin, chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, addressing the council on his own behalf in opposition to the measure. 

But Councilmember Betty Olds argued on the side of the majority: “We need fresh, new ideas,” she said.  


Mayor seeks Housing Authority board members 

Mayor Tom Bates announced at the meeting Tuesday that he is seeking volunteers for the new Housing Authority board. The board that oversees the city’s low-income housing now consists of the City Council and two tenants, but is slated to change governance and become a board appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. 

Those interested in the volunteer position can call Bates’ office at 981-7100. 


Council supports citizens on Pacific Steel – in principle  

The City Council seemed to hear the citizens’ outcry over Pacific Steel Castings emissions and approved 8-0-1, with Worthington abstaining, two of three recommendations from the Community Environmental Advisory Commission: one would approve a sampling study of lead and other heavy metals deposited on surfaces near PSC and the other would direct staff to look at the city’s current zoning laws—and to hire outside counsel to write new codes—to force PSC to reduce its emissions or loose its permit to operate. 

Simply approving the CEAC recommendation, however, doesn’t get the job done.  

“Basically, what the City Council did was punt till June,” Worthington told the Planet on Thursday, explaining that following through on the CEAC recommendations depends entirely on whether the council is willing to fund the study, an analysis of the study and an outside attorney to write new laws to address Pacific Steel Castings emissions. 

The council will receive a report from the city manager in May with an estimate of costs to fund the CEAC proposal; the report will then recommend that the issue be addressed during budget sessions in June. 

Community outcry against noxious emissions from northwest Berkeley’s Pacific Steel Casting has been mounting over several decades. While the plant has installed equipment to limit potentially-hazardous emissions, plant neighbors say they continue to smell odors coming from the plant and to experience asthma, skin irritations and other health-related problems they attribute to the plant. 

“This has gone on for too long,” said CEAC Chair Jason Kibbey, addressing the council.  

While staff had recommended the commission wait for a Health Risk Assessment to be released next month, Kibbey argued that the odor issue was sufficient to act immediately. “There is no need for more data,” he said. “This is a quality of life issue.” 

Commissioner Michael Wilson added that PSC publicly reported to the state in 2004 that it disposed of 76 tons of toxic air pollution into Berkeley’s air, about 420 pounds per day. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, charged with regulating the emissions, is “overly constrained in its capacity to protect public health in Berkeley,” he told the council, noting that the district granted the plant’s request to increase its emissions. 

He added that the district has never used a Health Risk Assessment, except for the dry cleaning industry, to compel any Bay Area industrial polluter to reduce toxic emissions. 

Some two dozen community members stayed at the meeting past midnight to address the council on the issue. 


Berkeley endorses lawsuit naming Rumsfeld  

The federal government is unlikely to demand the prosecution of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking U.S. officials for war crimes—the Bush Administration got congress to pass the Military Commissions Act that protects U.S. officials from prosecution for war crimes in U.S. courts—but Berkeley has no such reservations. 

At just before 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, the council, with six members still present, voted unanimously to support a resolution from the city’s Peace and Justice Commission that endorses a Center for Constitutional Rights’ complaint filed in Germany charging Rumsfeld, Attorney General Albert Gonzalez and other high-ranking Bush Administration officials with war crimes. Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Betty Olds and Gordon Wozniak had left the meeting by the time the item came to a vote. 

The commission had originally asked the City Council to join the lawsuit as a “co-plaintiff,” but city staff opposed that, arguing there could be unknown costs and unintended legal consequences from joining a lawsuit in another country. 

The resolution approved by the council says the U.S. “planned and knowingly engaged in torture and war crimes in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay … and those policies have been authorized and executed by the defendants named in the … complaint.” 

The complaint was filed last year on behalf of 12 torture victims by the New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights in order to request that the German Federal Prosecutor open an investigation that would lead to criminal prosecution of U.S. officials for authorizing war crimes in the context of the “war on terror.”  

In other actions, the council:  

• condemned the Immigration and Custom Enforcement raids on undocumented immigrants; 

• opposed U.S. military intervention in Iran; 

• supported Rep. Barbara Lee’s TRUTH act, urging congress to investigate human rights abuses in Haiti since the ousting of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide 

After a plea to the council from Henry Wellington, Berkeley Police Association president, not to support a state assembly bill that would keep police complaint hearings open to the public—Wellington says complaints against the police are private personnel matters—Councilmember Gordon Wozniak pulled the item from the council agenda, asking for it to be discussed in April.