Editorial: Another Opening, Another Show

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 09:30:00 AM

OK, political junkies. Now that the Democratic primaries are over, in the lull before the presidential election really picks up steam, it’s time to turn your fervent attention to the last remnants of decision-making which are left for the local voters, at least in Berkeley. Oakland has just about settled its council races, though the at-large councilmember’s slot is still open. But in Berkeley, at least in theory, you might still be able to influence what happens on the home front. 

Why do we, ever cynics, say “in theory”? Well, the chances for a meaningful change in how Berkeley’s run seem to be, as they’ve been for at least 20 years, slim to none. In most of the United States now, it seems, it’s not whether the officeholders are in the pockets of the building industry and its allies, it’s just which pocket who is in.  

The Planet will be reviewing whose campaign contributions went to which successful candidates in the recent state-level democratic primaries, but just as a teaser, we wonder how many voters realized that our anointed State Senator Loni Hancock took money from the developer who’s about to turn the beautiful Point Molate area into a gambling casino? (And yes, we’ll try to remember that she’s just anointed, not yet elected, as if there were a difference.)  

In theory, then, Berkeley voters might be able to choose new city councilmembers and a new mayor in November. In practice, almost all the incumbents are running for re-election, and absent an earthquake, Berkeley voters, most of them small-c conservatives who are smugly satisfied with their lot in life, can be expected to cast their ballots on the side of the status quo.  

There will be a modest change, perhaps, in the most self-satisfied of council districts, high-hills District 6, where Betty Olds is finally retiring, in her eighth decade and after at least 20 years in office, in favor of her long-term aide. No one in District 6 has much to complain about most of the time. A sizeable percentage of householders there, those whose very expensive view homes are built in the urban interface to the East Bay Regional Park lands, are worried about fire and will want even more fire protection, but otherwise everything up there is just fine, thanks.  

Few residents of other parts of Berkeley care very much any more about how the city’s run. Most of the small and dwindling number of people who might be called civic activists live in Berkeley’s urban sacrifice zones. These are the areas which have been designated by official consensus as building sites for the University of California, the new “Downtown Area” which is being replanned with the eager consent of the City Council to accommodate UC’s voracious desire for lebensraum.  

A few more live on or adjacent to the avenues which have already endured 20 or 30 years of the traffic which has been diverted from smaller neighborhood streets. These residents are now being rewarded with the big-box luxury private dorms which dishonest or credulous pols have sold to the public as “affordable infill housing.” Everyone else seems to be more than happy with the status quo, or too busy trying to make the mortgage to complain. 

Incumbent candidates are expected to sail home with ease. By and large, Berkeley has become a gerontocracy. What’s that? According to Wikipedia, it’s “a form of oligarchical rule in which an entity is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than most of the adult population. Often the political structure is such that political power within the ruling class accumulates with age, so that the oldest hold the most power. Those holding the most power may not be in formal leadership positions, but often dominate those who are.” 

When Berkeley officeholders finally age out of the job, which happens even in a gerontocracy, their replacements are usually chosen outside the ballot box. An example is the fancy footwork whereby associates of declining over-ninety councilmember Maudelle Shirek “forgot” to collect the needed signatures to let her file for re-election. This gave a clear shot to now-incumbent councilmember Max Anderson, a fish from the same political pond which produced Shirek. The District 6 transfer of power is slightly more above-board, but the effect is the same.  

The three incumbent councilmembers expected to be in the race have delivered reliable votes for a mayor who’s never met a developer he didn’t like, and who’s running for a third term to cap off a lifetime in elective office, with never a day job to mar his record. It would take a lot of chutzpah to run against any of these four, since the odds of beating an incumbent with big developer bucks in conservative Berkeley are poor at best. 

The same complacent support of the status quo extends to the non-elected officials. The City Manager has been around for decades, and will be in office until he retires with a lavish pension probably equivalent to his top working salary.  

The former City Attorney served 24 years, during which time she made some truly horrendous mistakes without consequences to her job. Her successor: another long-term city employee who’s been enjoying the title and salary of Acting City Attorney since October 2007 without fear of challenge. 

The Planet was reminded of this situation courtesy of an attorney who wants to apply for the City Attorney’s job. She (or he—identity concealed to avoid prejudicing future prospects) called the city’s Human Resources Department to ask where to send her resume. She was told that she couldn’t get an application or send her resume because the job wasn’t open.  

Why? Because there’s an Acting City Attorney, so the job’s taken.  

This story seemed so improbable that the Planet’s Executive Editor, who might even be a plausible candidate for the job by a very long stretch of the imagination, called the HR people and asked the same question, got the same answer. 

It’s Alice Through the Looking Glass: jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, never jam today. Or perhaps Catch 22: if you have to ask, you won’t be allowed to apply. 

When questioned by a Planet reporter, the City Manager claimed that he’s really truly going to do a national search for a new city attorney, just as soon as he gets A proverbial Round Tuit. That could take a while. 

The last round of charter revisions, back in the brief heady days of functioning local democracy in the ’70s, set up a procedure whereby the manager chooses a candidate for the City Attorney’s job who must then be “affirmed” by five votes of the City Council. But the loophole is that if a candidate is never presented, the council’s out of the loop, so to speak. An affirmative action litigator could have major fun with this process, especially since the Acting City Attorney who obviously benefits from it is a white male.  

The only function of Berkeley’s city government which really affects many people in both the flats and the hills is the property tax, specifically the designated specific local additions to the basic rate known as parcel taxes. Few citizens are annoyed enough with how things are done to support reform candidates or even, god forbid, to run for office themselves. But voting no on new taxes is easy, and can be done in private without even leaving home in these days of absentee ballots. It’s a form of protest which shows signs of surfacing again, even in ever-generous Berkeley, come November. It would be better to elect a new city council, but that seems unlikely at this point. And they say we don’t live in La-La Land? 

—Becky O’Malley