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Officials Praise Work of City Commissions

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 04, 2008

Whether it’s searching for a new animal shelter site, preserving Berkeley’s architectural heritage, scrutinizing police conduct or making sure schools have emergency caches, commissions do much of the city’s hard work, city staff, commissioners and several councilmembers told the Planet Thursday. 

They painted a picture very much at odds with a San Francisco Chronicle front page story Thursday that depicted Berkeley’s citizen commissions as not worth their cost. 

While most told the Planet that commissions actually save staff work, Councilmember Gordon Wozniak says commissions create extra work and should be consolidated to save staff time and city funding. 

The city has 36 commissions, most consisting of nine members, each appointed by one councilmember. In addition, there are two advisory commissions to nonprofit business improvement districts, mandated by law, and a library board, which is a self-selecting group of five that oversees the library.  

Wozniak suggested that the Zero Waste Commission, the Energy Commission and the Public Works Commission could be combined. “Overall there are probably too many commissions. There is a lot of overlap,” he said. 

He also advised combining the Homeless and Mental Health commissions. (The Homeless Commission, however, is comprised of a number of formerly homeless persons and the Mental Health Commission includes two members from the city of Albany; some of the members are or have been mental health clients.) 

Tania Levy, who staffs the Zero Waste Commission, said the focus of her commission and the focuses of the Energy and Public Works commissions are very different. The Energy Commission looks at reducing energy uses, such as by introducing solar power or insulating homes. The Public Works Commission looks at streets and sewers. 

At present, she said, the Zero Waste Commission (once known as the Solid Waste Commission) is looking at reducing through reuse or recycling the goods that get into the waste stream. 

She said she agreed with Wozniak that staffing the commission is a lot of work. “But the commission is also doing a lot of work,” she said, citing the tasks before it: writing policy to ban plastic bags and figuring out how to remodel the transfer station to keep more re-usable and recyclable items out of the dump.  

“It’s a great commission with a lot of skills,” she said, adding that staff gets input it needs from the public through the commission. 

Ruth Grimes, who chairs the city’s Energy Commission, said she doesn’t know much about the functions of the Public Works and Zero Waste commissions, but, at present, her commission would have difficulty taking on new tasks. 

It is studying a proposal for Community Choice Aggregation, which, if adopted, would put the city in charge of supplying energy, in partnership with Oakland and Emeryville. The commission is also looking at alternative energy sources. 

The Energy Commission also serves as the board of directors for the nonprofit Community Energy Services Corporation, although the corporation and the city are moving toward cutting their ties.  

Scott Ferris, recreation manager, staffs the Parks and Recreation Commission and had nothing but praise for it. “The commission gets a lot of work done,” he told the Planet Thursday. 

The Parks and Recreation Department faces multiple choices on where to spend its limited funds. “The commission gives feedback to staff on how to proceed,” he said. For example, the commission visited San Pablo Park when new paths were under consideration and realized that the buildings at the park needed improvement, which they then requested. 

The commissions are conduits for public input, he said, Partners for Parks or the Path Wanderers come to the commission to lobby, rather than lobbying staff, he said. 

Councilmember Betty Olds has worked with the Citizens’ Humane Commission on animal-related issues. “They all love animals,” she said. One of its major accomplishments was getting a bond passed for a new animal shelter. 

“The commission has done a huge amount of work,” she said. 

Community Health Advisory Commission has worked tirelessly on issues related to inequalities in health between the more affluent Caucasians in the Berkeley hills and the working-class African Americans in the Berkeley flatlands. 

Anderson credits the commission for lobbying for the hypertension clinic and for looking at problems related to spraying to eradicate the Light Brown Apple Moth. 

Bill White chairs the Police Review Commission. He says the commission continues to be of great value to the community, even though the courts no longer permit open-door hearings on complaints against the police.  

The commission has most recently presented to council its findings on policy implications stemming from the theft of drug evidence by a Berkeley police officer. 

Currently the commission is investigating the shooting of a grandmother by a Berkeley police officer, looking at the department’s use of force and domestic violence policies. (The officer was responding to a domestic violence call.) 

The commission is also looking at policies relating to crowd control, in the light of complaints stemming from alleged police overreaction during recent demonstrations at and around the downtown Marine Recruiting Center. 

“A lot of hours are put into commission work,” White said. “We do it because we are concerned citizens.”