Public Comment

Commentary: The Inconvenient Few

By Nancy Carleton
Friday March 16, 2007

Luckily for our democracy, even in our nation’s darkest hours there have always been a courageous few willing to speak truth to power. They may start out as mavericks with powerful enemies out to silence them, but they often go on to become inadvertent heroes, as the rest of the country finally catches up. 

Something similar may be happening in Berkeley. While the kind of personality willing to delve deeply into the details of Zoning code and Planning documents hardly seems likely to spark a movement à la Mario Savio or Barbara Lee, a handful of our local truth sayers have become the targets of a bald attempt to silence their participation in the often boring but significant arena of land use. 

Those who pay close attention to city politics are already aware of the realignment of political factions taking place over the past four years. Mayor Bates, elected as a progressive, has regularly built a City Council majority composed of several councilmembers who are anything but. 

This past Tuesday, a council majority of Bates, Wozniak, Capitelli, Olds, and Moore adopted the first reading of an ordinance aimed at eliminating a number of community members serving on Zoning, Planning, Landmarks, and Housing commissions by enforcing term limits of eight years and prohibiting these land-use commissioners from serving on any other commissions. 

While the original proposal referred to the city attorney in January attempted to masquerade as a good-government measure, promising to close loopholes in an earlier attempt at limiting terms for all commissions, when the council referral was stripped down to its bare bones—targeting only land use and eliminating term limits for other commissions—the mask began to slip. And when the city attorney (who certainly didn’t come up with the idea by herself) added a provision, unmentioned in the council referral, prohibiting members of the Rent Board, School Board, and Library Board from serving on land-use commissions, the mask fell away altogether. There has hardly been a rush of School and Library Board members clamoring to spend yet more hours in meetings! But two of the community members targeted by the ordinance (progressives Dave Blake and Jesse Arreguin) recently won four-year terms on the Rent Board; this provision would have effectively removed them from decision-making roles on land use for years to come. 

Enough protest surfaced to pressure the council into removing language related to the three elected boards, but too late to replace the mask. The council majority had no better rationale to offer as they passed the remaining part of the measure (terms limits and prohibitions on simultaneous service) than that given in the weakly worded staff report: “diversity” and the need for “fresh viewpoints.” It’s particularly ironic to make this change in the name of diversity. Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who will have the most commission appointments affected by this legislation (a number of his land-use appointees serve on second commissions, including the chair of Public Works), has a record of diversity in his appointments far above average, and one of the commissioners targeted, Jesse Arreguin, is Latino—a member of one of the most underrepresented minorities on city commissions and a rising political star deserving of progressive support. 

As I wrote in a letter to councilmembers, term limits are by nature antidemocratic: They arbitrarily deny us the best service from the best people available. While it’s good that this ordinance removes term limits for most city commissions, it’s even more important that term limits be eliminated for land-use commissions, where expertise matters most. We especially need the institutional memory of long-time land-use commissioners when they are willing to serve. How can Mayor Bates, who challenged term limits up to the U.S. Supreme Court, even consider such a proposal? 

In addition, under the Fair Representation provisions passed by Berkeley voters, every one of our elected councilmembers deserves the right to appoint the best person s/he feels fit. If individual councilmembers don’t wish to appoint people to more than one commission, they’re free not to, but why does the council majority feel it has the right to limit the choices of other councilmembers? 

As someone who once served simultaneously on two commissions (Zoning and Parks & Rec), I believe the city only gains when people are willing to volunteer to this extent, and suffers when councilmembers are denied the right to represent their constituents with the best possible commissioners available. Simultaneous service should be up to the councilmembers and commissioners involved; there’s no need for legislation to address this non-problem! 

But good government was never the intent of this legislation. Instead, the ordinance targets a handful of commissioners whom powerful interests (many of them deep-pocket campaign contributors) find threatening. I have watched with dismay as some land-use commissioners have strayed from strong interpretations of our Zoning Code and Area Plans in favor of politically expedient choices. I have to question why anyone would target a handful of citizen volunteers with outstanding knowledge of Berkeley’s land-use code. Removing experienced voices is, in fact, the antithesis of good government. 

So what was this legislation really intended to accomplish? Consider the effect term limits have had on the State Assembly and Senate: Professional lobbyists and long-term Sacramento staff get more power, while legislators are removed just as they are amassing enough experience to be effective. 

I don’t always agree with the commissioners targeted by this purge, but I know them to be people of integrity who do their best to call the attention of their appointed boards to the law as it is written and to apply it fairly. Good government when it comes to land use means enforcing the Zoning Code and Area Plans evenhandedly and without prejudice. Isn’t it time we all started to listen to the voices who call our attention to the facts, however inconvenient they may be to powerful interests in this City? 

Councilmembers will have a chance to redeem themselves at a second reading of the ordinance next Tuesday. 


Nancy Carleton is a long-time community activist and life-long progressive who served as chair of the Zoning Adjustments Board (Maio appointee) at the same time she was vice-chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission (Worthington appointee). Berkeley, amazingly, still stands.