Public Comment

Dona Spring, Tom Bates, and the Sound of Silence

By Elliot Cohen
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:17:00 AM

I have not written to the Daily Planet often in the past few years because the current state of our city is so depressing that I don’t know where to start. But the passing of Dona Spring has made me start thinking again of all the work that needs to be done.  

To be clear: the ideals shared by most people in Berkeley continue to make this city a candle in the night, a symbol of hope, unafraid to speak truth to power. At least on the national and international stage, but our local government is a sad disappointment. Dona understood more then most that while the Berkeley City Council must address important global issues, we could not afford to neglect the local issues that are so important. She understood we need both affordable housing and landmarks preservation. She was unafraid to speak out against the bombing of Afghanistan, despite knowing she would be personally attacked, and she opposed the shameful deal council voted on to cede development over the entire downtown area to the university. 

What will happen now that she is gone? Dona was very lonely in these last years on the City Council, often treated disrespectfully and often voting in the minority. And though the spirit of Berkeley has not died, as is still evident in such actions as the council’s decision to ask the Marine recruiters to leave our town, the sad truth is Berkeley no longer leads on progressive issues. 

Since Tom Bates has been mayor, Berkeley has fallen seriously behind, making a protest vote for Zachary Running Wolf an easy option, but if Shirley Dean runs for mayor, Bates could face a serious challenge. Given a real opportunity to actually unseat Bates I hesitate to say that I can’t be certain how I’ll vote. I hesitate, not because I’m shy, but because I value the Daily Planet and don’t want Bates to toss 500 or so issues in the trash, as he did with the Daily Cal during the 2002 campaign. After his re-election two years ago, I commented on this in a letter. A supporter of Mayor Bates wrote back claiming my mention of the incident showed there were “no real issues” upon which Bates should be criticized, essentially missing the point that silencing criticism, not the disposal of newspapers, was the very issue being raised. 

Something both I and Dona Spring very much regretted is the role we played in getting Bates elected. Almost immediately after the election, Bates began efforts to stifle public discussion by creating an “Agenda Committee.” Before the Agenda Committee existed, a citizen needed only one councilmember who agreed, and the City Council would address an issue in public session. The Bates proposal denied an individual councilmember direct access to the council agenda and gave the mayor and two other councilmembers the power to delay proposals or kill items, thus encouraging sleazy back room deals. 

Dona Spring, myself and a few others opposed the plan, and the council changed the rule to require commission proposals be placed directly on the agenda, thus ensuring a way to get things on a City Council agenda without interference. But without public scrutiny, this rule was not honored. At an early meeting of the Agenda Committee the city manager recommended removing a proposal that battery recycling bins be located in the lobbies of city buildings so people could drop the batteries off and the city could arrange for proper disposal. I objected to removing the item from the agenda, stating that it was an Environmental Commission proposal, but the Agenda Committee approved the action and the proposal was never heard of again. 

That one action, taken without public scrutiny, meant tons of batteries that should have been properly disposed of instead wound up in landfills where they leech poison into the soil and water. The poisoning of our environment by tons of toxic batteries is one sad legacy of the Bates administration that all the thousands of press releases by the mayor’s office cannot change. 

For the past six years the silencing of criticism has become a hallmark of the Bates administration. He has hand-picked task forces to circumvent more independent-minded citizen commissions, instigated a practice of placing deceptive descriptions of ballot measures before the voters so citizens are confused as to the purpose and effect of the proposed measures, and interfered with public comment before the City Council. When a group threatened to sue for denying citizens the right to public comment, Bates allowed the comment, but began arbitrarily changing when people could speak, reducing comment time from three to two or sometimes to one minute, telling people they had to wait until an item was called before they could speak (previously public comment took place at the beginning of the meeting), and otherwise arbitrarily changing procedures, creating uncertainty as to if or when people could speak, thus causing potential speakers to get discouraged and go home. 

So I should not have been surprised at the council meeting two days after the death of Dona Spring, when 10 or so friends of Dona’s came to the meeting to mourn her death and speak for two minutes each in her memory. Bates was so disturbed that some would praise this woman who had fought so hard against some of his polices that he actually said “be brief, this wasn’t on the agenda.” 

Maybe I should not have been surprised, but such callous disrespect is shocking nonetheless. Seriously, I ask you, is this the type person who should represent our city? 


Elliot Cohen sits on the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission.