Public Comment

South Berkeley Neighbors Demand Their Day in Court

By Laurie Baumgarten
Thursday October 02, 2008 - 09:33:00 AM

By the time this paper goes to press, the Verizon and Sprint cell phone antennas on the UC Storage Building in South Berkeley may well be operating. Neighbors who have been fighting these unnecessary and potentially dangerous antennas for three years watch as the workmen put up wires, pipes, and antennas. And all this goes on in front of our eyes while our legal case against the City of Berkeley, Patrick Kennedy and Verizon is pending. We demand that all work on the UC Storage building immediately halt until the legality of this installation is resolved. We expect our mayor and our councilmembers to demand that Patrick Kennedy not proceed with this installation until the neighborhood has had its day in court! 

Is our legal case just some desperate last attempt to stall the installation? No. We have legitimate concerns about the lack of democracy and fair play here in our fair city, and we have legitimate concerns about our local government not following the rule of law. We believe there has been a wrongdoing and our entire three-year struggle, its defeat or its victory, depends on this particular wrongdoing: Not the crime of the century, but plenty enough to give us the legal right to a re-hearing of this issue before the City Council. 

Just recently, this case won a court ruling against the City of Berkeley. We won the right to depose (take testimony from) Councilmember Linda Maio. After three years of attending meetings of the Zoning Adjustments Board and the City Council, collecting petitions, organizing picket lines and vigils, presenting evidence to back up our claims, writing letters and articles and making endless phone calls, the City of Berkeley tried to stop us from questioning Linda Maio, the very politician who led the arguments and whose vote was decisive in overturning the Zoning Board’s decision in favor of the neighborhood. By the way, Jesse Arreguin fought hard on the ZAB to protect the neighborhood so let’s get him elected to Dona Spring’s seat. 

The city has tried to block us from getting information before. Neighborhood activists were denied access to certain memos and documents of the Planning Department staff over a year ago. City Manager Phil Kamlarz claimed that since the people who wrote these memos did not know that the memos were to be publicly scrutinized, they were exempt from our claim under the California Public Records Act. I wonder how many staff members really believe that they can do things in secret legally with no oversight by the public? 

And is there something to hide about the city’s business transactions? Would this city have promoted this idiotic project of putting an antenna farm facing right into a neighborhood knowing there is no scientific consensus about the safety of RF radiation if this building were not owned by developer Patrick Kennedy who will benefit from this project to the tune of $20,000 or more a month? Our councilmembers, with proclamations of deep sympathy for our plight, claimed that the federal government gave them no power to decide where antennas should be sited and that they could not waste tax money trying to fight Verizon in court. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that local municipalities do indeed have power over placement of antennas. Thus, our city officials and representatives should welcome the opportunity to revisit this issue. Unless of course some councilmembers are more indebted to Patrick Kennedy than to Berkeley citizens and their rhetoric of sympathy was nothing more than crocodile tears. We aim to find out. And while we assert our right to transparent and democratic decision making in this city, no landlord, out of greed for himself, should be able to ignore our legal due process. The infuriating irony is that the neighborhood is paying for both lawyers: the city attorney through our tax-dollars and Steve Volker, our lawyer, through neighborhood donations and fundraisers. 

It is easy to think that these local political struggles and these local politicians are meaningless and petty. But they do reflect in microscopic ways the larger political climate and the limits of our democracy. In our own backyard, day in and day out, politicians who are not transparent with their motives and dealings sow the seeds of cynicism and demoralization among the electorate. By reclaiming some of our power at the local level, we believe we can renew ourselves as citizens who act and shape the future. Please help us. Call your councilmember. Tell him or her that the community’s lawsuit against the City of Berkeley, Verizon and Kennedy should be resolved before more antennas are operational in South Berkeley. And come to our Spoken Word and Music benefit to pay for legal expenses on Oct. 18 at Sconhenge Café (Shattuck and Ward) at 7 p.m. Enjoy an evening of Indian food and great performances –all for a $20 donation. Hope to see you there. 

Laurie Baumgarten is a South Berkeley resident.