Berkeley Councilmember Dona Spring, protector of the environment, fighter for housing rights and champion for human and animal life, died Sunday evening, July 13, at Alta Bates/Summit Hospital, after being diagnosed with pneumonia. She was 55.
Spring took strong stands on unpopular issues, Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Planet.
“I don’t think she ever considered playing it safe,” he said, pointing as an example to her October 2001 resolution opposing the war in Afghanistan that led to a barrage of right-wing hate mail aimed at her and Berkeley.
“She was a tough and wonderful person—one wants to use the word ‘saint,’” said Gene Poschman, Spring’s appointee to the Planning Commission.
Even as her body was increasingly ravaged by painful and debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, Spring turned her energies to the community’s latest battle with UC Berkeley—saving the trees in Memorial Grove where the university wants to construct a gymnasium adjacent to the earthquake-fault-traversed football stadium.
“She had energy up to the last. She came up to the trees,” said Councilmember Betty Olds, a grove supporter. While disagreeing with Spring on many issues, Olds found in Spring an ally in environmental and animal welfare issues.
At the June 24 City Council meeting, the last in which she participated, Spring urged council to pass a resolution asking the university to allow supporters to bring food and water to the tree-sitters and to return the streets and sidewalks to city control. As the clock ticked toward 12:30 a.m., Spring mustered only four of the five votes needed to continue the meeting and take action on her resolution.
The modified resolution, calling on the university to provide 1,800 calories of nutritious food to the tree-sitters, passed at the following meeting. Hospitalized at Alta Bates, Spring missed the meeting.
Speaking at Tuesday evening’s council meeting meeting after each councilmember had made remarks honoring Spring, Dennis Walton, who described himself as Spring’s 27-year “companion and soul mate,” thanked the council, saying, “Dona held each of you—and everyone she met—in high regard.”
And he joked, “I’m getting a message from Dona—‘Can we meet at the Oak Grove?’ She’s saying, ‘Don’t mourn, organize.’”
Walton went on more seriously: “She’s relieved of suffering of untold dimensions. She had a Sherman tank running through her body every day. But she put all that pain aside. We’ll carry on.”
Her physical deterioration coupled with the inadequate disabled access in the City Council chambers, caused Spring to participate in council meetings over the last two years or so via speakerphone. Walton thanked staff for making that possible.
Spring explained her need to teleconference in a 2006 interview with the Planet.
“First of all, the facility is not very accessible. When it’s crowded in there, I actually feel it’s dangerous getting past the stairs, with people popping in and out. Also when I go past the bathroom door, the doors open out. Once I hit my hand so that wasn’t too pleasant. I’m glad I didn’t break anything.
“The dais is such a cramped area. And I’ve got a big machine [wheelchair] so it’s very difficult and tight to get in there.
“One of the real problems is that there’s no controlling the heat. It’s an old building and an old furnace. I have to wear a body brace, which is hot. I’m also going through the change of life, which also contributes to it. I feel almost like fainting from the heat. They even got a fan for me, which I have on me, but it blows around other councilmembers’ papers. I also need more assistance in getting to my papers, which I think is a distraction to the other councilmembers, when I have to ask, “Can you get me this paper—can you help me with that paper?”
Even as she lay in bed in the intensive care unit, Spring was working on how she could get a computer and phone hook up to participate in the July 8 council meeting, said Councilmember Linda Maio, who visited Spring at Alta Bates.
Spring had especially wanted to participate in the council deliberation on the tree-sit issue and the question of the warm pool, Maio said.
Spring’s most consistent ally on the council was Worthington.
“We were a good tag team,” Worthington said. “She would usually initiate things and I’d figure out how we could move in the right direction—I mean left [politically].”
Worthington said Spring raised the issue of instant runoff voting before he even knew what it was. “At first it sounded weird,” Worthington said.
But after Spring explained it, he said he understood “there’s a great logic to this.”
Spring spoke to the Planet about IRV in a 2006 interview:
“I first introduced this to the council in 1993 when Loni Hancock was mayor. It was too new of an idea back then. I didn’t get one other vote … I tried to peddle it to the League of Women Voters. They set up committees to study it. It took them a decade, but they finally came on board … More and more communities are looking into it. San Francisco got it first. They beat Berkeley. Then Berkeley [approved it]…. It’s going to be the way of the future, which is really going to give the voters more of an ability to reflect on their choices and not have to ‘throw away’ their vote on someone who isn’t the anointed one or has got the party backing behind them. So I’m very gratified.”
Olds came on the council in 1993, the same year as Spring. They worked closely publicizing the need to pass a bond to fund a new animal shelter. Both were part of a committee searching for a location.
It took years for the search to bear fruit, but on Tuesday the council voted to purchase property near Aquatic Park for the new shelter, which, according Mayor Tom Bates, will likely be named in Spring’s honor.
Spring carried her defense of four-footed creatures further, campaigning against the “frivolous” use of animals for experimental purposes.
She was not without a sense of humor on the question, Poschman said. When she would call, he would regularly joke, “Oh just a minute, Dona—I have to turn over the veal on the barbecue” and she would laugh, he said.
Spring’s rheumatoid arthritis began to manifest itself around the time of her graduation, with honors, from UC Berkeley in anthropology and psychology.
Soon after graduation she went to work at Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living. CIL Deputy Director Gerald Baptiste told the Planet that he began work at the agency after Spring had left, but the two worked together on numerous disability-related issues over the years.
“Our last conversation was about the warm pool,” Baptiste said.
Spring was a passionate advocate for building a new warm pool to be used primarily by the disabled and seniors. At her last council meeting she continued her advocacy to get the issue before the voters on the November ballot. On Tuesday, however, the council decided to postpone going to the voters for bond funding for two years.
Baptiste also worked with Spring to get the city to provide more curb cuts for people in wheelchairs to get from the sidewalk into the street.
“She would ensure there was money in the budget for them,” he said, adding, “She was in pain a lot and it did not stop her.”
Mayor weighs in
Bates, who fought frequently with Spring, told the Planet she provided a balance on the council. “She had strongly held points of view,” he said. “I have been totally inspired by her and her tenacity—she fought right to the end.”
At a November 2007 council meeting, Spring was infuriated when Bates dismissed her request to allow a group of disabled people to speak early in the meeting on the warm-pool issue, given their dependence on time-regulated transportation. Bates had used the early portion of the meeting, while TV cameras rolled in the council chambers, to present his proposal for financing solar panels.
After the meeting, Spring told the Planet: “He had the audacity to say, we had no control over it … He wanted to showcase his solar project.”
The two had very different visions for downtown, which was part of Spring’s council district. Bates supports development downtown and Spring strongly objected to plans to build 17-story buildings.
“I’m going to miss her a lot, even though we had disagreements,” Bates said.
Growing up in Montana and Colorado, Spring loved to hike and fish. Her strong desire to protect nature and all living things brought her to the Green Party. She served on the Alameda County Green Party Central Committee for two years, beginning in 1990. Before that, she sat on the Democratic Central Committee from 1986-1988.
Rent Board Commissioner and Green Party member Pam Webster said Spring helped lead the way for Greens to enter the local political arena, through encouragement, example and appointment to commissions.
“She’s definitely a role model,” Webster said.
In its endorsement for Spring in 2006, an election in which she won with over 71 percent of the vote, the Alameda County Green Party wrote: “Dona has chalked up a solid environmental record, opposing hotel development on the waterfront and preserving it as protected wildlife habitat space. She has been a leader in Berkeley’s actions to reduce its green-house-gas emissions to be in accordance with the standards of the Kyoto accords. She worked to win accountability from UC Berkeley and the city in the use and reduction of toxins, and to decrease the flow of heavy metals into the storm drains. Ambient air emissions studies and tests in West Berkeley were initiated by Spring. When the City Council voted to clear cut nearly 250 downtown trees, Spring opposed the plan, insisting on a tree-by-tree survey that saved over a hundred trees.”
Peace and Justice
Worthington recalls how Spring lobbied the council to vote for the impeachment of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“First she had to push just to get it on the agenda,” Worthington said. Then she brought peace activists Dan Ellsberg and Cindy Sheehan to the meeting to speak in favor of the item. The council passed impeachment unanimously and eventually placed it before the voters, where it got 59 percent of the vote.
“The whole idea is to start a grass fire surging up on this issue,” Spring said at the time.
Housing for all
“Dona was the staunchest supporter on the council for affordable housing,” Maio said. “She would doggedly go after many little enhancements and benefits” on projects.
Because she knew the details of the projects, she was able to lead the fight against any move by developers to create even one less affordable housing unit or less open space than promised, Worthington said.
Spring supported rent control and tenants rights, Rent Board member Webster said, adding that she worked with Spring supporting Measure J, a 2006 ballot measure to enhance the city’s ability to preserve historic structures.
“I could always count on her as an ally,” Webster said.
Jill Posener, a member of the Humane Commission, said she worked with Spring on animal welfare issues and much more.
She not only had “a steel trap of a mind,” but engaged in quiet generous acts such as writing a personal check so that a cat at the animal shelter could get a needed operation, Posener said.
“She was a great American. She never failed to put her constituents first” but would help anyone living in any council district, Posener said. “She truly walked the walk—in a wheelchair!”
Memorial services are pending.