The Best-Laid Plans...

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 09:56:00 AM

Some have accused this space of being obsessed with city planning, and they’d be right. In a small but urbanized burb like Berkeley, if you’re interested in government at all, it’s hard not to be. Realistically, the only significant power left to cities in California is control of land use.  

Cities in this state used to have substantial local property tax revenues to spend on locally favored projects, as they still do in other states, but California voters decided 30 years ago to cap property taxes. This left sales tax revenues, notably spotty and subject to economic moodswings, as the main support of local governments.  

Cities like ours have been forced to put together a patchwork quilt of special assessments to fund essentials like libraries, police and firefighters, so the power of the purse in cities like this one is much diminished. People who don’t think the city is being managed wisely are tempted to try to target these assessments at election time, but even withholding funds doesn’t guarantee good government with the remainder. 

Patronage in cities used to take the form of handing out public jobs to political supporters. It still does in eastern cities, and even in San Francisco to a certain extent. The tradition survives in Berkeley only as the more-than-generous salary and benefits packages most city employees get, but the largesse is distributed across the board with little favoritism, thanks to civil service laws. Similar generosity has brought Vallejo close to bankruptcy, and other towns are teetering on the brink. 

The Chronicle’s Oakland columnist, who was raised in a small town in the Midwest, shows his colossal ignorance of how government works in California by his drumbeat criticism of Mayor Ron Dellums for not being able to wave a magic wand and turn straw into civic gold in a historically stressed city. Money for services is tight everywhere in California at the moment, with state government on the verge of fiscal collapse.  

Thus the major power of city administrations these days is to decide who gets to build what where. When staff or councilmembers can assure builders that their fond dreams will be realized, rewards are available. We recently saw Councilmember Linda Maio and her partner getting a real estate loan from developer Patrick Kennedy right before she voted on a lucrative cell phone tower installation for one of his buildings. Did that affect her vote? There’s no way to know for sure, but it could have. 

The question seems particularly interesting in light of city planner Wendy Cosin’s recent inadvertent disclosure to the Planning Commission. She told commissioners that the city has already signed what she called a “secret” agreement promising early review of cell tower regulations with Verizon, Kennedy’s customer on South Shattuck. If Commissioner Patti Dacey hadn’t pursued inquiries about why staff was pressing the commission to act quickly on the new regs, the agreement might still be a secret.  

At a later City Council meeting, it became clear that it’s been so secret that even Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who dots every i and crosses every t, didn’t know about it. How about Maio? What did she know, and when did she know it? 

And then there’s the career path of the city’s former Director of Current Planning Mark Rhoades, who joined developer Ali Kashani’s firm more than a year ago, though this perk might be the equivalent of scoring an outside stateroom on the Titanic. Kashani demonstrated his political acuity in the recent election by soliciting developer cash for losing council candidate Terry Doran in a widely circulated e-mail, giving development-stressed District 4 voters a clear view of which contender they didn’t want to vote for.  

The last time we noted the Rhoades-Kashani alliance, we got a long defensive op-ed from the smart and articulate director of the city of Berkeley’s Planning Department. He said that planners were just doing their job, not trying to influence policy, and the city’s commissioners and councilmembers had the last word. He pointed out that planners were just supposed to interpret and follow the city’s adopted plans. Well, sure, but plans—and planners—change. 

When we discussed this topic previously, planners seemed to take particular umbrage at my reprise of Commissioner Dacey’s favorite quote from the first lecture in her Administrative Law class in law school: Every regulatory body is eventually captured by the industry it’s supposed to regulate. So this time I’ll paraphrase my own Local Government Law professor instead: No one has to worry about general plans, since no one ever follows them anyway. 

A San Franciscan of my acquaintance described the endless meetings she’s attended regarding her city’s plans for South of Market and the East Side. She says there’s always a choreographed parade of standard representatives of interest groups, everything from a singing chorus of Filipino schoolchildren to Irish builders. The usual suspects address the audience, it’s all recorded and written down, and nothing changes—the city goes ahead with business as usual, regardless of what happened at the citizen gatherings. 

Here in Berkeley it’s not so colorful, but the outcome is the same. Numerous capable and public-spirited citizens have devoted countless hours to meetings on Berkeley’s General, West Berkeley, Downtown and Southside plans, and as soon as they were adopted the Planning Department and a few of their groupies set to work trying to get them changed.  

Thus we’ve seen the “flexibility” sought for West Berkeley, deeply suspect to the artists whom the existing West Berkeley Plan is supposed to protect, and the city’s agreement with UC to change the Downtown Plan to allow for UC expansion. The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, a group of energetic and intelligent citizens, was given the task of drafting the replacement plan, but the ink was hardly dry on their opus before the real parties at interest got to work trying to erase it. The Planning Commission has been packed with retired UC planners, developers’ lawyers and similarly impartial appointees, and they’re now working on their own draft, which looks to be a complete reversal of every intention manifest in DAPAC’s draft.  

All of this inside baseball is headed for the playoffs this month. If you care about this kind of arcane stuff, it’s time to keep your eye on the ball. Traditionally citizens pay less attention during busy pre-holiday periods, both winter and summer, which makes them the favorite seasons for politicians to try to slide a few fast ones across the plate. Deadlines for all of these controversies are on the horizon at the Planning Commission and the City Council, and new councilmembers might mean some shifting alliances.