The recent passing of former Berkeley City Council Member John Denton, who served on the Council from 1975 through 1986, calls for remembering his enormous contribution to civic life. John Denton was an informal leader of the many Berkeley residents who cared about preserving Berkeley’s unique character and livability, and who did not strictly identify with either the Berkeley Citizens Action—BCA/left/progressive—or Berkeley Democratic Club—BDC/moderate/conservative—political factions. John was never politically correct enough to please many on the left, while the moderate/conservative faction tended to view him as a pro-tenant radical. But to his many supporters in the community, John was the conscience of the City Council.
I had the privilege of being a City Hall aide to John Denton in 1985–1986, and of working on issues with him from time to time before then and after. His commitment to protecting and enhancing the Berkeley community was unmatchable. He was very devoted to the Berkeley community.
I specifically remember John’s efforts from 1980 to 1982 to keep the University of California from seizing the California School for the Blind and California School for the Deaf site in southeast Berkeley – now the Clark Kerr Campus. Originally known as the School for the Blind and Deaf, it had occupied the site since the 1870’s and was Berkeley’s oldest state institution. The University of California had coveted the site for decades. John fought an ultimately unsuccessful battle against a University bent on expansion and against a City Council majority that was prepared to let UC grab the historic site.
From 1982 through 1986 John worked steadfastly to protect the Berkeley Waterfront from the massive development plans of the Santa Fe Railroad Corporation, the owner of the land at the time. At first John was the only City Council voice for waterfront open space preservation, with both the progressive/ left and moderate/conservative factions on the Council prepared to let the Santa Fe Corporation substantially have its way. As chairperson of the City Council’s Waterfront Committee, John worked relentlessly to preserve waterfront open space.
As the rest of the City Council slowly began to adopt positions in favor of waterfront open space preservation, John kept pressing ahead, challenging the Council to make it as difficult as possible for Santa Fe to develop its waterfront land. John was so committed to protecting the Berkeley Waterfront that he gave priority to campaigning for a waterfront open space preservation initiative in the fall of 1986 over campaigning for his own re-election to the City Council. John’s efforts to preserve the Berkeley waterfront have generally not been recognized.
John Denton came close to being Mayor of Berkeley. In January 1979, he and Gus Newport competed for the BCA endorsement for Mayor to run against incumbent Warren Widener. At a well attended and tense nominating convention, John led Gus Newport by an increasingly large margin after each of several rounds of voting, but failed by a few votes to get the 60% needed for nomination. Finally, the convention adjourned for one week, after which time there would be one ballot, with only a simple majority needed for the nomination. Confident of victory, John spent the week working to heal the wounds from the hard fought nomination battle. When the final vote occurred, Gus Newport won the BCA nomination by four votes (as best as I remember), and then went on to be elected mayor. A neighborhood coalition urged John to run for Mayor as an independent. He declined, and instead won re-election to the City Council on the BCA slate.
John Denton was not easily pigeonholed. He was a relentless critic of excessive spending by City Hall, and opposed increases in City Council salaries. At the same time, he was always a strong defender of Berkeley’s Rent Control law, and a strong defender of Berkeley’s homeless and down-and-out population. If my memory is correct, John also was the first one to suggest having a public comment period at City Council meeting.
John Denton was always generous with his time. In the fall of 1986, when he was in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, it seemed that half the students in the UC Journalism School were calling John’s office to interview him for a class assignment. Even though he should have been out campaigning to save his City Council seat, John would patiently let every student who called interview him, even though the interviews would not appear outside of a term paper. John’s City Council office was always open to anyone who had a gripe about city government or a gripe about life in general.
It would be unfair to say that John Denton cared only about local issues. He devoted considerable efforts in 1985 and 1986 to raising funds for Mexico earthquake relief. And he did pro-bono legal work for Guatemalan refugees threatened with deportation.
The law of unintended consequences cost John Denton a fourth term on the City Council. Public anger over positions taken by the BCA majorities on the City Council and School Board—positions which John invariably did not support—resulted in voters approving a District Elections initiative on the June 1986 ballot. As a long time resident of the Claremont neighborhood, John was forced in November 1986 to run for re-election in the new affluent and conservative District 8. Although John had spent years battling with the BCA council members over major development projects and other controversial issues, his District 8 opponent kept repeating that John Denton was BCA, and John’s defeat was thus insured. Had District Elections not taken effect, John would most likely have been elected to a fourth term on the Council.
After leaving the City Council, John served as president of the Berkeley Council of Neighborhood Associations(CNA), and wrote a regular column for the Association’s monthly newsletter. John kept up his civic involvement into his late 80’s.
John Denton’s focus was the City of Berkeley and its residents, not the interests of the Chamber of Commerce, not the interests of the University, and not an internationalist agenda. He cared about preserving the physical character and natural environment of Berkeley, and about improving the lives of the people who lived here. John and his late wife Ruth, a charming and outgoing woman, will be missed by many.