Edtorial: Fractious Council, Late Nights Make Bad Laws

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday May 29, 2007

Outside my window the scrub jays are engaged in their annual uproar. It might be about sex, it might be about fledglings, it might be about squirrels—who knows, but there’s always a bunch of them, and they’re always raucous. It’s possible even the jays have forgotten by now why they do it, but they do it every spring. 

As I’m watching them, I’m also watching the video clip of last week’s Berkeley City Council discussion of the latest version of proposals from Mayor Tom Bates to remove unsightly persons from the viewshed of potential shoppers: his Public Commons for Some People Initiative (PCFSPI). It makes the jays look civil.  

How many readers of the Planet actually watch or listen to the Berkeley City Council in action? Folks, if you love democracy you’ve got to do it. There’s a bunch of ways to see our current council in action. If you have cable television, Berkeley Community Media broadcasts it live, and then replays the tape several times during the week. It’s live on KPFA’s extra radio channel, KPFB. If you have high-speed Internet access (this is ideal for the two or three hundred well-heeled folks who vote on Kitchen Democracy) you can watch real-time, or check out the video segments, handily labelled so you can skip around, a couple of days later. Or, god forbid, you could even attend the City Council meetings in person. 

Yes, yes, the cliche launched by Otto von Bismarck is that people who love law or sausages shouldn’t watch either being made. But if it’s democracy you love, it’s your civic duty to see what laws are being made in your name, whether you enjoy the experience or not. 

The fracas that ended the last meeting was an all-time low in a series of public embarrassments that have been getting worse every time. Max Anderson put it politely: “We’re not at our best”—right before he put on his coat and walked out, along with Betty Olds, effectively halting the spectacle. Thank goodness. 

And what’s ironic is that it’s all avoidable. The PCFSPI topic is one that’s obviously fraught with controversy, so there’s no possible excuse for putting it at the end of a long and difficult agenda. It was after 11 when the council got to it. 

Several of the councilmembers started out by making intelligent if obvious remarks. Capitelli said you shouldn’t punish public elimination when you don’t have any public toilets open. Maio said you shouldn’t punish people sleeping on the sidewalk who don’t have beds to go to. Betty Olds said that providing such amenities was going to cost a bunch of money, and raising parking fees to do it would drive away even more shoppers. All good points, but they had to struggle to make them. Anderson came out against cruelty. Wozniak contributed a mish-mash of poorly digested statistics from the New York Times, just irrelevant, not harmful.  

But when Worthington and Spring attempted to introduce well-thought-out substantive ideas, the mayor, who was presiding as usual, stomped all over them. He’s a sound-byte kinda guy on his best days, and late at night he’s not very patient. Worthington tried valiantly to make a substitute motion, but was interrupted before he could even finish reading it. “We’re supposed to be out of here in nine minutes,” said Bates. 

Spring tried several times to get recognized, and when she finally was, asked for five minutes to speak because she’d so often been gavelled down when she attempted to talk about the topic. We never! said the mayor indignantly. (Oh sure. There’s a video guy and disability activist who’s threatened to make a video of nothing but instances of Bates interrupting Spring, as a lesson in how disabled people get shut out of conversations.) 

This is no way to make important decisions. Berkeley is becoming a laughingstock in the regional and even national media because of the proposal to use a no-smoking law to solve pressing problems on the streets, and yet no real solutions have been placed on the table in coherent form. Yesterday’s Chronicle had a front-page puff piece in which a Berkeley city staffer riffed on his bright ideas for Draconian laws to end global warming in Berkeley (“Ban Wedgwood stoves!”) which haven’t even been discussed at City Council, much less voted into law. Who’s in charge here, anyhow? 

Is there any way to bring the City Council back into the decision loop? They’re really not bad people, some of them even caring and intelligent human beings, but their hands are increasing tied by the way issues are presented to them. 

Here are a few of the things that are wrong with the picture, not everything but it’s a start: 

1) Too much meaningless paper. A recent council packet was 1,400 pages long (sadly, not 1,400 words as we mistakenly said here). Councilmembers freely admitted that they hadn’t read it. 

2) Meaningful paper delivered at the last amen minute. The important report on the health of Berkeleyans was delivered at 5 p.m. just as the workshop to discuss it started. Councilmembers were thumbing through it, but reading it? No. 

3) Meetings start too late, and therefore are over too late. Ceremonial items often delay the start of the action agenda until 8 or later. In Santa Cruz, non-controversial and ceremonial items are heard in the afternoon, leaving only the important things that the public needs to be able to watch to be heard at night, so the meetings ends at a reasonable hour. None of our councilmembers has a conventional 9-to-5 job, and several are retired, so they could easily adopt this schedule. 

4) Too few meetings. This is the biggy. Under the current mayor and council, vacations (“recesses”) have gotten longer and longer, and council has taken to meeting only every other week. As a result important city business is crammed into fewer and fewer meetings, which thus get longer and longer. Our councilmembers need to curtail their world travel (and reduce their carbon footprint) so that they can just have more meetings. 

It’s tempting to blame the length of recent meetings on the number of public comments allowed, but the city is simply complying, under threat of a lawsuit, with the state law which requires them to be heard. And if the PCFSPI, to take just one controversial example, hadn’t been tossed on to the council agenda from out of right field, but had been introduced and discussed at the relevant commissions in the first place, those whose conscience compels them to weigh in on the topic (and I include myself) wouldn’t have to speak at all these council meetings, and everyone could go home earlier.