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Council Clashes Over Decorum, Shuts B-Town

By Judith Scherr
Friday July 20, 2007

The last full City Council meeting before a long summer break ended with an angry exchange between Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Dona Spring over what Spring says is the mayor’s habit of cutting her and others off when they speak.  

Nonetheless, the council tackled a number of issues, unanimously backing a zoning board recommendation to shut down the Sacramento Street B-Town Dollar Store due to alleged criminal activity in and around the business, delaying approval of a single-family home on Panoramic Hill, allowing the development of a five-story condominium project on Shattuck Avenue, studying the creation of “quiet zones” where trains won’t sound whistles in Berkeley, allocating funds to a project to end city purchases of goods produced in sweatshops, and supporting locked-out Waste Management employees. 

The council delayed until September addressing an audit citing problematic city and police management of asset forfeiture funds, as the city clerk had forgotten to include the report in the council packet and the Police Review Commission had not been alerted that the audit was on the agenda. 

There was insufficient time for the council to address rules for public comment, placed last on the agenda by Mayor Tom Bates. 

While the agendized public comment rules got short shrift, there was a 20-minute non-agendized slide show on water conservation from East Bay Municipal Utility District representative Andy Katz, who spoke at the beginning of the meeting at the mayor’s behest under the rubric: “ceremonial matters.” 


B-Town Shuttered 

Six police officers and a code enforcement supervisor asked the council to follow the zoning board’s recommendation to shut down the B-Town Dollar Store at 2973 Sacramento St. where they alleged criminal activity had been taking place for years. 

Neighbors and nearby merchants did not attend the public hearing. “Community members said they were not going to come tonight,” Chief Doug Hambleton said. “They are afraid of reprisals.” 

In a written statement, police said they had “numerous dealings with people going in and out of B-Town, using B-Town as a safe haven to run from and avoid contact with the police, and to hide their drugs and other items involved in their trade.” 

Sgt. Randy Files testified that a B-Town manager had “provided a place for a burglar to hide.” 

Neither property owner Chul J. Kim nor property manager Joo H. Kim, a San Francisco police officer, attended the hearing.  

Nayef Ayesh, who owns the business, told the council that he and his wife have operated stores in Berkeley since 1984 and “never broken the law.” 

“What happens outside my business, I have no control over it,” Ayesh said, arguing that he can’t “grab an Uzi” to go after drug dealers outside his store.  

Police testified that there was no record of Ayesh or his family calling them for help, but Ayesh said when he called, “They said, there’s no loitering law.” 

Councilmember Max Anderson called for shutting down the business, saying: “The evidence is overwhelming, clear, and well-documented over a long duration.” 

At its brief July 31 meeting, the council will be asked to approve a formal document listing the reasons the store is being shut down. 


Condos Approved 

After mediation with neighbors resulting in a project reduced by 1.269 square feet, the council approved 6-0-3 a five-story, 24-unit condominium development at Shattuck Avenue and Derby Street. Four of the units will be sold at below market rate. 

“The real sticking point was the fifth floor,” said Anderson, who abstained, as did Councilmembers Dona Spring, and Kriss Worthington. Neighbors, who had appealed the zoning board approval of the project, said the fifth floor would cast shadows over nearby single family homes. 

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak pointed out that the fifth floor was a partial floor so that the building “stepped back” from the neighboring residences.  


SweatFree Berkeley funded with caveat 

The council released with conditions $25,000 set aside in June 2006 to fund SweetFree Berkeley, aimed at stopping city purchases of goods made in sweatshop conditions. The council approved the release of funds conditioned on other cities joining a consortium and contributing the additional $35,000 needed to implement the project. 


Panoramic Way decision delayed  

By unanimous vote, the council delayed a decision until September on an appeal of a zoning board decision to permit construction of a 1,425-square-foot single-family home at 161 Panoramic Way. 

Neighbors of the proposed dwelling say it will be too big for the lot size, that it poses a threat to a Live Oak tree in the public right of way and that coming to and going from the home on the narrow street with blind curves will be hazardous both during and after construction. 

“It will be a permanent detriment to the health and safety” of the neighborhood, said Jerry Wachtel, president of the Panoramic Hill Association, which is appealing the zoning board decision.  

“We are going to make Panoramic Hill safer by making a pullout,” said property owner Bruce Kelley. “It will be better than it is right now.”  

The delay will give the owners time to prepare a plan for vehicle traffic during construction and to respond to other planning staff concerns. 


Public comment rules delayed 

At about 10:50 p.m., Bates announced there wasn’t time to discuss the question of public comment rules before 11 p.m., but permitted people to speak on the question during time (after 11 p.m.) otherwise set aside to discuss “non-agenda” items. 

After SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense) threatened a lawsuit last year based on limits imposed on public speakers by both the library board and the council—limits which SuperBOLD and its attorneys, the First Amendment Project, said violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting laws—the mayor began “experimenting” with various rules to expand public comment. 

Contending that the rules should be set in concrete, rather than changing meeting to meeting, Worthington proposed a set of rules in June that would allow public comment on every item by all wishing to speak and setting specific time limits that diminish with larger numbers of people wishing to speak. 

At the mayor’s request, Worthington delayed his proposal until Tuesday’s meeting.  

The mayor’s proposal limits speakers, in some instances, to two sides of an issue and, in some cases, gives the presiding officer latitude to expand or decrease the number of speakers and their time. 

“Public comment is so basic to democracy,” Leona Wilson told the seven councilmembers who remained to hear speakers after 11 p.m. Wilson said that in the New England town where she came from, everyone was allowed to speak at town meetings. If someone went on too long, the public would intervene. 

“We didn’t have somebody on top micromanaging,” she said, underscoring the need for people to express many sides of an issue. 

Worthington and Spring, who wrote a separate proposal, both place public comment on non-agenda items early in the meeting. Bates’ proposal places it at the end.  

Putting public comment last “shows your contempt for public comment,” Gene Bernardi of SuperBOLD told Bates.  

Spring’s proposal calls for a public hearing in September on rules for public comment, which Phoebe Anne Sorgen told the council she supports. “We need more public comment in the home of the free speech movement,” she said. 

Others spoke in favor of Worthington’s measure, which could make meetings longer. Bates responded that when his wife, now an assemblymember, was mayor, she was younger and could work until 2 a.m., but that he was older and it was difficult to be clear-headed after 11 p.m.  

“You have to give us a break. We’ve changed the entire way of doing things [from the lottery system],” Bates said, apparently transforming the public comment period into a council discussion. 

“We have to find a balance between 2 a.m. and 11 p.m.,” Spring added, as someone from the back of the council chambers called for meetings every week. (The council generally meets twice monthly, although council rules call for three meetings per month.)  

Spring went on to say that the council needs a “fair and impartial way” to allow the public to speak, which drew Bates ire. “It takes five votes to overrule the chair,” he retorted. 

After the council voted to adjourn the meeting, Spring, who later told the Daily Planet she is often cut off by the mayor, told Bates: “You wouldn’t want to be treated the way you treat me!”