The year 2008 saw the renewal of the political battle between the once and future mayors of Berkeley: Tom Bates and Shirley Dean. It was a year in which environmental issues dominated City Council discussions, from the furtherance of various “green action” plans to the continuing battles over cellphone antennae facility expansion. Development issues were a constant—what should be built, and where, and how high.
And demonstrations—from the downtown Berkeley Marine Recruitment Center to the oak grove in front of UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium—brought national attention to the city. Berkeley was holding its own against proposed and possible state revenue shortfalls due to the growing recession.
In short, it was a typical year for the Berkeley City Council.
That, however, is not how the year will be remembered. In-stead, 2008 in the Berkeley City Council will be forever linked
in our minds to the passing of two long-term Councilmembers from the scene, Dona Spring and Betty Olds, one from an untimely death, the other by retirement. Though Spring was one of the council’s most committed progressives and Olds, a solid Berkeley moderate (the emphasis here being on the word “Berkeley”), often putting them on opposite sides on some of the council’s most ideologically driven issues, the two councilmembers held a common concern for animal rights and formed a formidable team on the council to push through animal welfare issues.
Berkeley City Council started off 2008 in typical Berkeley fashion, joining in a far-reaching East Bay urban environmental protection effort, but squabbling over the ways and means of it all the way. A unanimous Berkeley City Council agreed to join the East Bay Green Corridor Partnership, a coalition of the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond and Emeryville along with the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory designed to “strengthen the regional economy through support for emerging green and sustainable industries, alternative energy research, and a healthy built environment.”
But while support for the proposal itself gained full council support, at least one councilmember complained about the manner in which it had been brought about, with Kriss Worthington concerned that Mayor Tom Bates had signed the partnership’s statement of principles without first getting the City Council’s approval.
And several citizens speaking at the council meeting, along with Councilmember Dona Spring, questioned whether a “green” alliance with the University of California might also mean support for oil giant British Petroleum, with which UC had recently entered a $500 million partnership to develop biofuels.
Also in January, the council passed at the time what seemed like a routine-for Berkeley-set of proposals in relation to the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq. With some dissent, the council approved a Peace and Justice Commission resolution condemning the presence of military recruiters in Berkeley. One of the planks of the resolution asked the city manager to write the United States Marines telling them that their downtown recruitment center was not welcome in Berkeley, adding that “if recruiters choose to stay, they do so as uninvited and unwelcome intruders.”
At the time of its passage no one, not even the council dissenters, appeared to know just how explosive the resolution would be, or how much it would put Berkeley again in the national forefront of anti-war activity.
By early February, with national media attention focusing on the “uninvited and unwelcome intruder” Marine recruiters statement and pro-military and anti-war demonstrators beginning to converge on the city, Councilmembers Betty Olds and Laurie Capitelli called for a revision of that statement, saying in a press conference, “We failed to make it clear that while we continue to oppose what we consider an unethical and illegal war in Iraq, at the same time we respect and honor all the brave men and women who are serving or have served in the military … We have erred by not adequately differentiating between the war and the warriors.”
On Feb. 12, the Planet reported that “since voting Jan. 29 to support protests at the downtown Marine Recruiting Center and asking staff to write a letter telling the Marines they are ‘unwelcome intruders,’ the Berkeley City Council has been skewered on-line and in print, excoriated in thousands of e-mails, and threatened by Republicans in Congress and state legislature with the loss of government funds.”
Later that evening, after up to 2,000 pro-military and anti-war demonstrators jammed the street and parklands in front of old City Hall, Council effectively reversed its earlier vote to declare Marine recruiters “intruders” in Berkeley, substituting instead a statement that recognized “the recruiters’ rights to locate in our city” as well as “the right of others to protest or support [the Marine recruiters’] presence.”
And late in the month, the council joined several other Bay Area cities in opposition to a controversial plan by the California Department of Agriculture to use aerial pesticide urban spraying to eradicate the Light Brown Apple Moth. The controversy spread, and late in June, the Planet reported that “after months of local government and citizen condemnation from Monterey to the East Bay of the state’s proposed plan to spray by air to disrupt the reproduction of the light brown apple moth, with anti-spray bills moving rapidly through the state legislature and with lawsuits temporarily tying up the spray program in two counties,” California Secretary of Agriculture A. J. Kawamura announced plans to call off the aerial spraying and substitute the plan with the release of sterile moths to drive the apple moths into extinction.
In March came the first reports of the effects of the growing national recession on the City of Berkeley’s finances. City Manager Phil Kamlarz informed the Council that with “property-based revenue tanking,” while the city’s budget was balanced at the midyear point of the ‘07-’08 fiscal year and no layoffs or program cuts were on the horizon, there would be no new city services envisioned unless residents authorized new taxes to pay for them, and Berkeley could face a $1.6 million budget deficit by 2011.
Late in the month, the Council began discussions on proposed revenue increase ballot measures to put on the November ballot, but delayed a final decision pending an April David Binder poll designed to determine what services Berkeley taxpayers were willing to pay more money for, and how high the increases should be.
After taking its annual four-week spring break in late March and most of April, the council got the results of the David Binder tax-support poll, and they did not look good. A survey of 600 Berkeley residents showed lukewarm support for tax increase ballot measures, with library facility upgrades, recreational improvements, construction of a warm water pool, and storm water upgrades all failing to receive the 66 percent approval rating needed for tax increase measures. Councilmember Dona Spring told the Planet that “it doesn’t look good for taxes at all from the results.”
But late in the month, with the need for support of those services critical, the council asked staff to prepare three possible November ballot measures, promising to make a decision on one of them in June.
City Manager Kamlarz told councilmembers that he was proposing setting aside $2 million in the FY ’08-09 budget as a contingency fund to meet the almost certain cuts in money from the state that he felt were sure to be caused by the deepening state and national recession.
Also in May, breaking with tradition, Mayor Bates gave his annual State of the City address not to the general public in City Hall chambers, but at a semi-private, invitee speech at Meyer Sound in West Berkeley. And the council postponed until October discussion of the long-awaited revisions to the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.
Late in June, the council briefly considered entering the growing controversy over UC Berkeley’s plans to tear down a grove of oak trees in front of Memorial Stadium. Protesters had been living in the trees for several months, effectively blocking the use of chainsaws, and the council had been requested to intervene to protect the health and safety of the tree-sitters, who were charging that their lives have been put in danger by the university’s various attempts to isolate them and bring them down. But in a chaotic end to the last meeting in the month, the Council failed to get enough votes to extend the meeting time past 12:30 a.m. in order to take up the issue.
And despite its promise to do so by the end of June, the council again deferred a final decision on what tax-increase measures to put on the November ballot.
In July, the council finally settled on its bond and tax measures, authorizing what later became Measure FF (branch library renovation) and GG (fire stations, medical response, and disaster preparedness). The council also decided in closed session that it would not sue to keep a citizen-initiative measure off the ballot that, if passed, would give citizen control over street lane set-asides for public transit. That measure, KK, was crafted by opponents of AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which proposes to set-aside the two middle lanes of Telegraph Avenue in order to put in a high-speed bus system from downtown San Leandro to downtown Berkeley.
Also in July, what may have been the year’s biggest single council controversy arose over the council’s decision not to appeal a Superior Court ruling in favor of UC Berkeley on the university oak grove issue. The council had sued to stop the university from constructing a new athletic facility near Memorial Stadium on Strawberry Canyon grounds which run along an earthquake fault. UC Berkeley’s athletic facility plans had led to a year-long occupation of a grove of old oak trees in front of Memorial Stadium, which were scheduled by the university to be cut down to make way for the new facility.
After the council declined in a special closed session to appeal the judge’s decision in the university’s favor, it was revealed that the university had earlier sent the city a letter negotiating concessions on their construction plan, and asking the city not to appeal. The existence of the university letter was not revealed to the public until after the council’s closed session vote against an appeal, giving the public no chance to give councilmembers their own views on the appeal prior to the vote.
The controversy grew worse over the fact that city officials asserted that in this particular case, California’s open meeting laws did not require the council to reveal which councilmembers had voted for or against the appeal in closed session.
But the biggest news of July, without doubt, was the death of longtime Councilmember Dona Spring from complications due to her longtime affliction of rheumatoid arthritis. “Berkeley is mourning the loss of Councilmember Dona Spring,” the Daily Planet wrote in a special July 25 update, “protector of the environment, fighter for housing rights and champion for human and animal life.
The normally talkative Kriss Worthington, Spring’s closest council ally, was “too distraught” immediately afterwards to comment on her death. But in the most poignant of many statements used to describe Spring, who moved about in the last years of her life only with the aid of a wheelchair, the Planet quoted Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman as saying that “She was a tough and wonderful person. One wants to use the word ‘saint’.”
The council took its six week summer break through August and the first two weeks of September. Late in September, the council took its first look in a while at revisions to its existing condominium conversion ordinance, considering a “complicated staff recommendation” for revisions in the amount of fees charged to convert dwellings to condominiums, as well as the process by which those fees are determined.
In October, City Manager Kamlarz told councilmembers that prudent city financing would absorb state cutbacks mandated by the passage of the recent state budget, with $1.7 million in cuts to be offset by a $1.8 million contingency fund set aside in this year’s city budget for just that probability. But with the current year’s state budget still several billion dollars out of balance, Kamlarz said that the city might have to brace itself for further state cutbacks.
Meanwhile, the council tinkered for a bit with its condominium conversion ordinance, trying to find a balance which did not encourage the loss of the city’s rental housing stock while not shutting off conversions altogether. Finally, with the issue too complicated to handle on a short-range basis, the council decided to hold the issue off until the November election and the certainty that at least two new Councilmembers would be on board (the successors to the late Councilmember Spring and the retiring Councilmember Olds).
With the city’s Planning Commission considering revisions to the Berkeley’s Wireless Telecommunication Ordinance in response to a recent federal appeals court decision, the council re-entered the cellphone antennae facility battles with a bang in November, considering citizen appeals from the Zoning Adjustments Board over granting permits for two new antennae facilities.
The discussions of the two appeals, which spread over several meetings in November and into December, sparked a running debate between two Councilmembers, Max Anderson (an antennae facility opponent) and Gordon Wozniak (who supports expansion of the facilities). Most of the councilmembers expressed frustration that the federal Telecommunications Act prevented any consideration of the possible health effects of increased cellphone antennae facility construction.
The council also said goodbye to the retiring 88-year-old Olds, who was participating in her last meeting of the council, in which she had served for the last 16 years. She entered the meeting to a standing ovation from a packed council chambers and cheers of “Yay, Betty!” A mayoral proclamation set aside the day in her honor, and a long string of friends and constituents—as well as councilmembers—came to the microphone to pay tribute and to repeat their favorite “Bettyisms,” the prickly, pithy (and sometimes earthy) remarks for which Olds was famous. Olds herself was allowed to gavel her final meeting to a close, saying that she was “sad to be leaving.”
She showed up at the first council meeting in December as a private citizen, with one friend joking with her that “now you can leave early, if you want.” She did.
The council went back to a favorite issue in December—international affairs—approving a resolution calling for federal prosecution of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall Law Professor John Yoo for supporting torture by the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, the council got predictably gloomy economic news from City Manager Kamlarz. The economic downturn has caused a $2 million downward projection in general fund revenues for the current fiscal year with the city’s largest revenue producers—restaurants and car sales—particularly hard hit by the recession.
But with the state legislature meeting to close a projected multi-billion dollar gap in the ’08-09 state budget—and with a certainty that state cutbacks to local governments were in store in the upcoming ‘09-10 budget as well—there was certainty at the end of the year that the worst of the recession’s effects were yet to be felt.