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News Analysis: Looking Back on The Year in Berkeley

By Judith Scherr
Friday December 28, 2007

Take a look back at Berkeley in 2007. 

There was the passage of an initiative that advocates for the homeless and mentally ill say could be used to criminalize vulnerable people. The promise of a sunshine law was all but ignored by the same city officials who said they want it written. Voices contesting the location of telecommunications antennas near their homes echoed in the wilderness. The process for filing complaints about police behavior was gutted. Plans for a new warm pool for disabled people are still in limbo. And the old ice skating rink remains an empty cavern. 

There’s still some fight left in the Berkeley of 2007. Code Pink and other organizations are demonstrating almost daily at the downtown military recruiting center and the Elmwood community continues to fight against what they say is out-of-scale development in their neighborhood. The Ed Roberts campus that will house a number of nonprofits serving disabled people finally got the funding advocates had sought for years. 


Public Commons 

In the same year the governor decided to slash funds for the homeless mentally ill—Berkeley lost $1 million from AB2034—the City Council got behind an initiative to bring business to Berkeley’s shopping areas by ridding them of people who act inappropriately. The measure does not target the homeless, said Mayor Tom Bates, who initiated the laws that just target those who lie on sidewalks and smoke in commercial areas. 

The initiative, which was called Public Commons for Everyone—nomenclature which has been compared to the Peacekeeper (missile), the Healthy Forest Ini-tiative (to cut down trees) and No Child Left Behind—was brought by the mayor and supported by the business community.  

If people didn’t act badly in front of businesses, more people would shop there, more sales tax would be raised and the city could provide more services, supporters reasoned. 

While the Fox News take on the initiative, lifted from a report in the Chronicle, was: “It will be harder to have sex or smoke on sidewalks in Berkeley, Calif.,” a staff report explaining the new ordinance says there will be “continuing enforcement of existing local and state laws.” The new resolution and ordinances expand laws targeting people lying on the sidewalk and smoking.  

Berkeley Police spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said the new laws would not be enforced until the police chief issues an updated police bulletin and training on the new ordinances takes place. 

However, attorney Osha Neumann says that even though the new law has yet to formally kick in, his clients are being told by police not to sit on sidewalks (sidewalk sitting is not part of the new laws) or lie in doorways. 

The law is said to take a “carrot and stick” approach, with the carrot being services for people whose behavior is inappropriate. The homeless and their advocates who spoke to the issue at various public meetings all said that what is most needed is supportive housing—housing coupled with services. 

The initiative includes plans to provide such housing for about ten of the hardest-to-serve individuals, and contemplates some other kinds of functions, such as building a computer system that tracks the location of available shelter beds. Any eventual services would be tied to new revenue from increased parking meter fees; the council will vote on these fees in January.  

At least one part of the services has already kicked in: Restrooms at Civic Center are now open until midnight, according to city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross. The bathrooms at the Telegraph Avenue-Channing Way parking garage are open until the parking facility closes.  

The council has said it will not vote on new laws banning public urinating and defecating until more public bathrooms are provided on a 24-hour basis. Jobs cleaning the bathrooms are to be available to the homeless.  


A year in the dark 

A California Supreme Court decision, coupled with a Berkeley Police Association win in a court case against the city, gutted Berkeley’s 20-year-old complaint process, through which individuals could make public complaints against officers before a three-person Police Review Commission panel. The panel was able to make a finding that a complaint was either justified or it was not. The police chief and city manager were responsible for officer discipline in cases where complaints were found to be justified. 

The city is appealing the decision that found that this procedure violated police officers’ rights. It argues that the PRC is not directly responsible for disciplining the officers, while the police officers’ association says the PRC ruling impacts discipline decisions. 

A closed-door hearing process—intended to be temporary—has been established but is not in use. Under this process the individual would make a complaint to the panel, and then leave the room. The officer and his or her representative would remain and respond.  


A sliver of sunlight 

It took the threat of a lawsuit by SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense) and attorneys from Oakland’s First Amendment Project, to get the City Council to revise rules to allow public comment on each item before the body, as mandated by the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law. 

However, city staff still has not moved forward, as directed by the City Council last spring, toward writing and adopting a Sunshine Law. Such laws as adopted in other cities guarantee the public access to meetings and records beyond what is stated in the Brown Act and the Public Records Act. 

Meanwhile, residents continue to complain that they cannot get documents requested from the city in a timely way. For example, it took a month for the city manager to provide a reporter with copies of a 2005 Request for Proposals for removal and disposal of hazardous waste and the response to it from the contractor that got the job. 

The Public Records Act says such material should be delivered within 10 days. 

Former City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque was charged with writing a Sunshine Ordinance based on community input at a council workshop, but she had not done so before she left her post at the end of November. 

By the time she submitted her resignation, city insiders were charging that Albuquerque, city attorney for some 25 years, had expanded her influence in city government beyond the scope of her office. Her public letter early in the fall, blaming the city manager, the deputy city manager, then Housing Director Stephen Barton and his staff for problems in the city’s housing authority, was roundly criticized by community members and formally countered by letters of support for Barton from the Rent Stabilization Board and the Housing Advisory Commission. 


Housing Authority 

Under threat of a takeover by another housing authority, ties between the Berkeley Housing Authority and the city of Berkeley were severed and a new entity was created.  

A mostly-new board appointed by the mayor replaced the city council which had previously functioned as the Authority’s board. Despite a gaggle of high-paid consultants, an infusion of about $1 million in city funds, a new director and a hands-on board, the new authority has not been able to regain the accreditation it lost and retains the designation of “troubled” authority. 


Community action 

A number of communities rallied to preserve their neighborhoods.  

Residents and small business owners in the West Berkeley community fought back against a small group of developers and owners of large parcels who wanted to include their properties in a new Business Improvement District without their consent or participation. 

Proponents, most of whom belong to the West Berkeley Alliance, said they will regroup and are likely to come back with a new plan, perhaps the formation of a district that doesn’t tax residents. 


Community loses antenna fight 

Neighbors lost their fight against the powerful telecommunications companies that will be allowed to place antennas on Patrick Kennedy’s UC Storage building at Ward Street and Shattuck Avenue.  

They had first won at the zoning board, but lost an appeal at the City Council, after the city’s attorneys said the city would be unable to win a fight against the companies in court—Verizon had filed a lawsuit. 


Elmwood community still fighting  

Some residents and merchants in the Elmwood neighborhood lost a battle at the City Council level to stop a developer from building a large restaurant/bar they say is too big for the small shopping area, which has limited parking.  

Their group, however, has filed suit against developer (and Elmwood resident) John Gordon, which has so far resulted only in required mediation. The neighbors say they are not giving up and have threatened to picket any restaurant that opens at the former Wright’s Garage site at Ashby and College avenues. 



Early last summer, Chris Kavanagh did what he’s known for doing best: he fought a landlord eviction—his own. His name was on the lease of the Oakland cottage from which he was threatened with eviction.  

Still, Kavanagh says his legal residence is not Oakland but Berkeley. That affirmation has some significance, as he’s an elected member of the Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board and has been so since 2002, when he was first elected. Kavanagh was elected in 2006. 

After the question was raised in the media, the Berkeley city attorney turned the case over to the Alameda County District Attorney, who charged Kavanagh with seven felonies related to allegations that he lied about his residence in order to serve as an elected official in Berkeley.  

Kavanagh stepped down from his post for the three months ending in December, after which he returns to his seat on the board. He has a hearing date scheduled in mid-January. 

In an unusual closed session City Council meeting Dec. 17—apparently initiated by the city manager and not by the mayor or five council members as required by the Brown Act—the council could have addressed the question of asking a judge to remove Kavanagh, but took no action.