Public Comment

Secret UC Berkeley Letter to the City Council Subverts Democratic Decision-Making

By Doug Buckwald
Friday July 25, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

One never really gets used to getting thrown out of the lifeboat, no matter how many times it may have happened in the past. It is always excruciatingly shocking and painful. Last Thursday night, the city council did this to its own citizens again—right after a special closed council meeting called by the mayor to decide whether or not the city would appeal Judge Barbara Miller’s recent ruling in the Memorial Stadium oak grove case. The city decided not to appeal, thus also tossing overboard the quarter million dollars it has already invested in the case. 

This leaves the remaining two plaintiff groups, the California Oak Foundation and the Panoramic Hill Neighborhood Association, likely to face a huge financial hurdle—a requirement to post a bond of a million dollars or more per month to avoid dissolving the injunction—that would effectively end the protection for the oak trees and allow the university to chop them all down. It did not have to be this way. If the city had decided to join the appeal, there would have been no bond requirement, because municipalities are categorically exempt from such obligations. Thank you, Mayor Bates and councilmembers, for summarily slamming the door in your citizens’ faces. 

The city’s craven collusion with the university against its own residents in the oak grove case is just part of a disturbing pattern of city disregard for the rights and quality of life of its citizens. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the neighbors who live near the UC campus to deal with the detriments caused by the continuous expansion of this massive, unaccountable, corporate-controlled institution. Every day, UC activities create more problems with traffic, parking, pollution, noise, construction impacts, destruction of trees and green space, student disturbances, and strain on uncompensated city services. 

The cumulative impact of these factors is enormous, but one problem that residents face in getting attention to these issues is that these substantial detriments are disproportionally borne by relatively few citizens. The closer you live to the campus, the worse off you are.  

Even so, the oak grove issue has galvanized attention and support from across the city. So, on Thursday night, there was a massive show of support in favor of the appeal. I was profoundly inspired by the turnout of people who lined up out the door to speak at the special council session. They showed the council and the community the diverse nature of our coalition, consisting of an impressive variety of people and groups from across Berkeley. We should all be proud of the work we have done just to get all these individuals to work together this way. This is in the great tradition of democracy.  

In spite of a massive turnout, the city completely disregarded our views. This is consistent with many other recent local issues that had similar significant shows of concern at council—but were decided in defiance of the overwhelming sentiments of the community. It seems the city wants to manage us, rather than represent our views.  

But this time, the situation is even more disturbing, because the city acted in a completely deceptive and manipulative manner. On Thursday, hours before the special session was to begin, the city council received a letter from UC Berkeley vice chancellor Nathan Brostrom—but the city did not did not divulge the contents of this letter to the public before or during the meeting. Yet, this very same letter was a primary topic that was considered in the closed session. So, the City Council prevented the citizens from being aware of significant information that would impact the decision about the appeal, and thus prevented them from commenting on it. Without a doubt, Mayor Bates took these steps intentionally to curtail the democratic participation of the very people he is supposed to serve. 

In short, Thursday night the mayor and our city council stole democracy from us. 

As they listened to us speak, one after the other, with impassioned and well-reasoned arguments, they were just waiting for us to finish so that they could talk about something else. I think this is completely inappropriate, and shows how far from authentic citizen involvement in decision-making we are now. And right here in Berkeley, no less, the city with an international reputation for citizen participation in civic affairs. This reputation is no longer deserved—what we have here is the outward form of democracy, without the substance. It is sham democracy.  

It apparently was against the law what they did, too—a direct violation of the Brown Act. I have been told that, at the very least, they should have had copies of the letter available at the meeting, and should have allowed the public to know about them and view them. Also, this is just common decency. Furthermore, after the closed session was concluded, Mayor Bates offered a brief summary of the contents of the UC letter to reporters at a small press conference, but then refused their requests for copies of it—even though he was standing right near a copy machine. That is certainly one way to make sure that news reports are censored so that they are biased in your favor. Is this really how we want our city officials to behave? 

Please read the letter from Nathan Brostrom, vice chancellor of administration at UC Berkeley. Here is the link . It is mostly composed of recycled statements from an earlier, widely discredited “settlement offer” UC Berkeley made before the initial hearing in the case, but with a few new vague and equally meaningless things added. One consistent theme throughout is this: Nothing is guaranteed at all, and most of the concessions are merely offers to delay certain objectionable aspects of the SCIP projects until some later date. Also, readers should bear in mind this advice as they peruse the document: UC Berkeley officials are known for saying things that sound vaguely good, but when you read carefully you discover that what they are really saying is exactly the opposite of what they want you to think they are saying. It is diabolical. 

But the last paragraph is the most revealing. It strongly suggests that a deal had been worked out in advance of the meeting, in which the city agreed “not to file an appeal to the current litigation and not to file any future legal challenge to the Memorial Stadium project.” To me, because this offer was taken seriously by our city council, it shows that they are far more interested in representing the interests of UC Berkeley than they are in representing us, the people of Berkeley. 

Also, the letter clearly gives the lie to the so-called mediation efforts that the university has been crowing about. They never intended any true cooperation with the community. These meetings were scheduled only to further the university's specious claims that they are "cooperating with the community" and "working with the neighbors." Nonsense. All along, they were preparing to try to cut a deal with the city that would leave the residents out of the process. 

No wonder the mayor did not reveal this letter before the meeting. He did not want the public to offer intelligent comments about it. By keeping it secret from us, he was able to present it to the council in closed session as a reasonable document—instead of the ridiculous, disingenuous, shameful thing it really is. 

There must be consequences to this action. If we let behavior like this stand unopposed, we have given up control of our own city. I, for one, am not ready to do that. 

All of us in the coalition to save the oaks should recognize the importance of the work we are doing. Besides revealing the value of this special urban woodland and these magnificent trees to the world, we are revealing the profoundly undemocratic nature of our own city government. 



Doug Buckwald is director of Save the Oaks. He believes that authentic cooperation is essential to resolving the important issues facing our city regarding university activities and expansion.