Public Comment

Council Actions Subverted Democratic Decision-Making

By Doug Buckwald
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:14:00 AM

Last Thursday night, the Berkeley City Council threw its citizens out of the lifeboat again—this time in 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. Not only that, the City Council appears to have violated the Brown Act in the process, and may be about to give up all rights to any future court challenges to the university’s legally questionable plans for the reconstruction of Memorial Stadium. This goes beyond simple sell-out and ventures into the realm of serious civic misconduct. 

Unfortunately, the city’s refusal to go forward with an appeal 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. The city may have just slammed the door on the community’s legal chances to save the oak trees. 

The city’s collusion with the university against its own residents regarding this issue is part of a disturbing pattern of city councilmembers completely ignoring strong public opinion about an issue and then voting the other way—almost always (not surprisingly) to the benefit of parties with an economic interest in an issue and to the detriment of citizens whose quality of life will suffer from the decision. The additional problem faced by residents impacted by university expansion is that the substantial detriments of this growth (traffic, noise, pollution, loss of parking, loss of trees and green space, construction impacts, and student disturbances) are disproportionally borne by relatively few citizens. The closer you live to the campus, the worse off you are. The farther away you live, the easier it is to ignore these problems. 

Even so, the oak grove issue has galvanized attention and support from across the city (not to mention around the world). So, on Thursday night, there was a massive show of support in favor of the appeal. It was inspiring to witness the turnout of people who lined up out into the hallway and spoke, one after the other, with impassioned and well-reasoned arguments. They showed the council and the community the diverse nature of their coalition, consisting of an impressive variety of people and groups from across Berkeley. Those in the community working to save the oak grove should all be proud of the effort they have made to get all these individuals to work together. This is in the great tradition of democracy.  

In spite of this sizeable turnout, the city completely disregarded the views of the community and made a decision that will harm its own citizens. When things like this happen repeatedly, it should be clear to all that the council has another agenda: It seems that the council wants to manage us, rather than represent our views. 

In this case, the city acted in a completely deceptive and manipulative manner. The mayor failed to divulge the contents of a letter the City Council had received from UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Nathan Brostrom, and so prevented the public from commenting on it at the meeting—even though it was discussed later in the closed session. 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. 

It apparently was against the law what they did, too—a direct violation of the Brown Act. The city clerk should have had copies of the letter available at the meeting, and should have allowed the public to know about them and view them. Furthermore, after the closed session was concluded, Mayor Bates refused to offer an accounting of the votes that had been taken; this, too, was an apparent violation of the Brown Act. This kind of secrecy flies in the face of our city’s longstanding commitment to citizen participation in government. 

Please read the letter to the council from Nathan Brostrom. 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 statements 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 stadium area projects until some later date. Also, readers should bear in mind some 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 may be in the works, one that requires the city “not to file an appeal to the current litigation and not to file any future legal challenge to the Memorial Stadium project.” It is astonishing that the council would even consider foregoing any future reexamination of the university’s plan to try to rebuild a huge crumbling stadium that sits right on top of an earthquake fault. The fact that they are doing so shows how far out of touch they are with average residents—not to mention common sense. Worse yet, 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, Nathan Brostrom’s 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. The few small meetings they scheduled with selected neighbors were held for two strategic purposes: First, to further the university's specious claims that they are “cooperating with the community” and “working with the neighbors.” Second, to look for opportunities to divide and conquer neighborhood opposition. All along, the university was preparing to try to cut a deal with the city that would leave the residents out of the process. 

It’s no wonder the mayor did not reveal the university’s 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.  

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


Doug Buckwald is director of Save the Oaks.