Public Comment

Where Has All the Power Gone?

By Sharon Hudson
Thursday October 09, 2008 - 09:36:00 AM

We Americans tend to think that the world revolves around us. I used to think this was arrogant, until I noticed, during my travels, that it was true. The evening news in Southeast Asia and Africa usually led with stories about the United States, and somehow Latin Americans knew much more about American foreign policy than I did. Now I understand that the powerless usually know much more about the powerful than vise versa. Vulnerable people need to understand those who control and influence their lives, while those in control are largely unaffected by those around them. Therefore, although those in power love to call them “complainers” and “crackpots,” the regular victims of power are usually astute observers of the covert mechanisms of governance. 

In Berkeley, more and more people are discovering, to their surprise and chagrin, that they are among the powerless. Most learn this, as I did, when a developer targets their neighborhood. Some find it out when trying to get everyday problems solved at City Hall. Others notice their taxes going up while their quality of life goes down. Would this be happening if we—the citizens—really had any power?  

There is not enough room in this commentary—or anywhere—to itemize the city’s improprieties and failures to properly serve its citizens. Most readers are probably well aware of what is wrong with Berkeley, but for others who have been insulated from City Hall, here are some obvious—and expensive—problems: 

Berkeley residents have high taxes and fees, but we receive relatively poor city services, even with many more City employees per resident than other cities. Many of us don’t notice this because we’ve gotten used to it or have little experience with other cities. This staff ineffiency arises in part because, as City Manager Phil Kamlarz has admitted, “There are no incentives or disincentives built into our [staff] performance evaluations.” How often is a Berkeley employee fired for bad performance? I wonder. But since the vast majority of the city budget goes into personnel costs, we must address staff inefficiency if we want to have any money left to improve our city.  

The average annual wage and benefit package of non-sworn city employees is almost $110,000; of firefighters, $173,949; of police, $195,241. Our severance and benefits packages are extravagant and fiscally irresponsible. Meanwhile, nonprofits and other contractors are given generous city contracts year after year without evidence of program success. But which Berkeley politicians will confront the unions or pet nonprofits? Suicide, anyone? 

The university sucks up over $12 million in city services each year, and returns a relative pittance of good deeds to the community. The university not only destroys neighborhoods in its own vicinity, it also undermines the city’s overall housing stock and attractiveness to families, because student housing pressure reduces housing quality to a level far below that of neighboring cites. Yet strangely, our mayor and council kowtow to the university and ignore our own taxpaying citizens. Why? 

The mayor hopes to “develop” our way out of our fiscal problems, which is why neighborhood quality of life is being handed over to developers. Neighborhood residents, and sometimes even homeowner project applicants and professional developers, are incensed by the behavior of senior staff at the city attorney’s office and the Planning and Development Department, who treat the citizens of Berkeley like the enemy—with “contempt,” according to one judge privy to internal documents. Last election, Mayor Bates said that these development struggles are “as it should be.” As it should be? I can hardly think of anything more unjust, stupid, and wasteful. 

If the mayor were the only council member so out of touch with morality and reality, we could survive, but unfortunately, the majority of the council is equally clueless and/or arrogant. Why? Because they live in an insulated coccoon of staff spin and cozy personal and political networks. Protected by the power of incumbency and political money, they can ignore the massive disconnect between city government and the common folk. And most important, they can safely ignore problems outside their own districts. 

Berkeley is increasingly a two-tiered city. All the detriments of development, of housing and economic pressures, of bad national social policy, and of the university are borne by about half of the population, who live in poorer neighborhoods or near transit corridors, potential development sites, or the university. The other half of the population is largely safe from negative physical impacts. But this half is not immune from the city’s incompetence, because they pay high taxes, but find it increasingly unpleasant to partake in the city’s downtown and civic life, which is their right. In fact, their money is wasted paying for the downstream consequences of the bad policies that damage their fellow Berkeleyans. Everyone loses—together. There is nothing more expensive than bad government. 

Those who are under attack by the planning staff or university expansion must defend themselves, undermining their desire and ability to contribute positively to the city. As planning activist Jane Jacobs observed: “After you’ve defeated something ‘worse,’ there really isn’t that much more time or energy left…to also make something better.” Most Berkeley activists want to create something better, but have to spend most of our time fighting something worse. This is an unconscionable abuse of citizen resources and good will. Although invisible, it is extremely expensive for the city, both socially and fiscally. 

Residents who are not under siege have time to contribute to public service, but they do not represent the majority of at-risk Berkeleyans. Our City Council and land use commissions are dominated by relatively well-off residents who are at no personal risk from performing “smart growth” experiments on others. Over 50 percent of Berkeleyans are renters and/or live in higher-density areas. But the Zoning Adjustments Board includes one renter and the Planning Commission, none, and almost all these commissioners live in primarily single-family areas. Five members of the Planning Commission come from Districts 5 and 6. One councilmember is a renter. Is this really “representative” government? When these “representatives” vote to harm their fellow Berkeleyans, do they even represent their own neighbors’ wishes? I doubt it. But their neighbors don’t know what their “representatives” are doing. 

After six years in the municipal quagmire, I have concluded that tweaks of existing processes will change nothing. Given our municipal political structure, and the influence of money and state political connections, it may also be impossible to replace the current council with a better one—though we should certainly try. Electing people with fewer friends in high places and more connections to suffering neighborhoods would be a good start. 

But for the long term, I believe that the only strategy that will improve things in Berkeley will be the significant restructuring of Berkeley government. There are many changes that would be beneficial, but among the first should be to modify the district election system, which is at the very heart of Berkeleyans’ lack of power and Berkeley’s dysfunctionality.  

My next two commentaries will discuss the problems of district elections, and some possible solutions. 

Sharon Hudson is a long-time Berkeley resident, Southside renter, and old-style progressive.