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City Council OKs Public Transit Grant

By Judith Scherr
Friday September 14, 2007

Despite a number of residents urging the City Council to oppose it, councilmembers unanimously approved a $396,000 county-federal grant aimed at delivering customized transit information to people living near Telegraph Avenue, San Pablo Avenue and the Ashby Avenue BART Station. (Councilmember Max Anderson was absent.) 

In other actions, the council held a workshop to discuss new policy for citizen comment at council meetings, honored a former department head who was forced out of his job (see accompanying story), approved a controversial new library trustee, and OK’d boycotts of Valley Power Systems in San Leandro and the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville. 


Travel Choice grant 

Most of the concern expressed by residents who spoke at the council meeting against accepting the grant for the project known as Travel Choice was directed more at the Transportation and Landuse Coalition (TALC), the nonprofit named as grant recipient, than at the program itself. 

That’s because the TALC is among the supporters of full implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a plan that many residents and merchants strongly oppose. If implemented, BRT would provide a dedicated bus lane on Telegraph Avenue, while removing automobile lanes. Opponents also say BRT could encourage inappropriate high-density housing projects.  

Supporters of Travel Choice, however, argued that TALC’s support for BRT was unrelated to accepting the funds. 

The grant “is intended to promote existing options,” Matt Nichols, Berkeley’s principal transportation planner, told the council. “BRT does not exist.” 

Stuart Cohen, TALC executive director, assured the council that the Travel Choice outreach workers would not be given information about the BRT and that the two issues would be kept separate. 

Before voting to approve the grant, the council added a clause that specifically would prohibit TALC from using the grant to promote BRT. 

Members of the public had other concerns, asking why the city did not put the project out for competitive bid. Nichols responded that TALC was the only entity familiar with Travel Choice in the Bay Area, having implemented the program successfully in Alameda and the Fruitvale district of Oakland. 

Speakers also questioned the project’s method of contacting residents by telephone, which, they said, could be a nuisance to those who get the calls. (They also go door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods.) John Knox White, Travel Choice Program Manager for TALC, responded that by offering free coffee and tickets on public transit they are able to keep most people on the phone. “Sixty-six percent took the time to have a conversation,” White said, of the project undertaken in Alameda. 

Mayor Tom Bates added his support: “If you’re going to get them out of their cars, they have to know their options,” he said. 

When it was his turn at the public microphone, Doug Buckwald told the council there’s a better way to get people out of their cars than Travel Choice: make public transit “low cost, more frequent and make it go where you want to go,” he said. 


Public Comment 

The council delayed a vote until October on new rules for public comment. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington and Mayor Tom Bates proposed competing ordinances each promoted at a 5:30 p.m. workshop. 

Among the most controversial questions was the issue of when to schedule public comment on items not listed on the agenda. Bates had proposed that these speakers be heard at the end of the meeting, generally around 11 p.m. for two minutes each. After listening to the public calling for public comment earlier in the evening, he said he would consider allowing three or four speakers, chosen by lottery, to speak early in the meeting; the others would speak at the end. 

Worthington’s proposal calls for the public to be heard on issues not on the agenda toward the beginning of the meeting, just after the vote on the consent calendar, where the council approves non-controversial items. 

“To have public comment (on non-agenda items) at the end of the meeting excludes the elderly and people with children. It takes away their democratic rights,” said Jane Welford of superBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense). 

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli responded, asking Welford: “How do you balance the public’s right to watch the council do its work with the citizen’s right to be heard in public comment?”  

Both Worthingon’s proposal and the mayor’s give the public time to address consent calendar items. The mayor limits consent calendar speakers to three in favor of an item and three against. If there are more than three in opposition, the item will be pulled from the consent calendar and discussed as an action item at the end of the meeting. 

Worthington’s measure allows all speakers to address the council on consent and action items, but limits their time according to their numbers—if there are fewer than five speakers, each can speak for two minutes; if there are 5-9 speakers the time is reduced to 1.5 minutes and if there are more than nine speakers, each can speak for one minute. 

The mayor’s proposal allows the first nine speakers on action items to speak for two minutes and the others for one minute.  

Public speakers pointed out, however, that the quick and nimble would get to the microphone first, thus being able to speak for the full two minutes. The mayor said he would consider choosing the two-minute speakers by lottery. 

But Councilmember Linda Maio pointed out that when the council used a lottery system—they put speaker cards into a hopper from which the city clerk drew the cards—people used to put their names in more than once, or come with a large group so individuals could cede their time to a designated speaker. People who submitted just one name had less of a chance than others to be chosen. 

The mayor urged the council to move forward and establish public comment rules. He’s been experimenting with various formats since last year, when SuperBOLD threatened to sue the city over restricted public comment. 

“We need to adopt some rules; the public is confused,” Bates said. 


Meet elsewhere 

The debate over public comment sparked a discussion—not on the agenda—on the need for a new place for the council to meet. “We are denying the public a chance to attend meetings,” Worthington said, referring to times when the Council Chambers are full and people cannot enter. 

“It’s pretty disgusting that in Berkeley, there’s not a decent place to meet,” said Councilmember Betty Olds, advocating for the rehab of the building in which the Council Chambers is located—the Maudelle Shirek building (Old City Hall)—which is the school district headquarters and is not earthquake safe. 

Bates said the city has done a search and found no other place in the city that is wheelchair accessible, large enough and can accommodate TV transmission equipment. 

At Longfellow School it is difficult to hear because the acoustics are bad, Olds noted, adding that the Berkeley Community Theater “is so depressing.” City College is overbooked and the dais is narrow, City Manager Phil Kamlarz said. 

Wozniak noted there are many ways councilmembers get feedback in addition to hearing speakers at council meetings, including phone calls, letters and email. “We have to have other avenues,” than council meetings, he said. 


Library trustee approved 

New library trustees are generally given “rubber-stamp” approval by the City Council, after having been approved by the five sitting trustees. But at Tuesday’s meeting the council was not unanimous, voting 6-1-1 to approve Carolyn Henry Golphin to replace Laura Anderson on the board, with Councilmember Kriss Worthington voting in opposition and Councilmember Dona Spring abstaining.  

Golphin is past president of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and works as marketing director for Skates By the Bay. 

Skates unsuccessfully sued Berkeley several years ago, claiming it should not have to follow the city’s Living Wage Ordinance, which impacts businesses on bayside properties owned by the city. 

Speakers from SuperBOLD spoke against Golphin’s appointment, based on Skates’ activism against the ordinance. 

“I’m proud of the support you give to labor and good pay,” Jane Welford told the council. “Because Carolyn Golphin was such a hard fighter against the living wage ordinance at Skates By the Bay” she should not be appointed, Welford said. 

But Susan Kupfer, chair of the Library Board of Trustees pointed out that, in promoting Skates’ point of view, Golphin was simply doing her job. 

During the trustees’ interview process, no questions on labor issues were posed to the candidates. 


Other matters 

In other matters, councilmembers voted unanimously to support a boycott of Valley Power Systems in San Leandro, which is on strike—they do maintenance work on fire engines—and to also support a boycott of the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville, which has refused to comply with Emeryville’s Living Wage Ordinance for hotel workers. Emeryville has asked the hotel to comply with the ordinance by paying back wages owed the workers, but it has yet to comply.  

Olds abstained on the Woodfin Suite boycott.