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Bitter Petition Campaign Ends, City Awaits Fate Of Downtown Plan

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 11:17:00 AM

A contentious campaign to overturn Berkeley’s recently passed Downtown Area Plan comes to an end at 5 p.m. today, Thursday, when opponents face a deadline to turn in petitions decertifying last month’s Berkeley City Council passage of the plan. 

The plan, mandated by the settlement of the city’s lawsuit against University of California expansion, sets the direction and goals for development in the city center for the foreseeable future. It is not binding on U.C. Berkeley, however. 

If 5,528 valid signatures have been collected and turned in, the Downtown Area Plan will be invalidated. Council will then have the option of passing a new version of the plan, putting the Council-passed plan on the ballot for Berkeley citizens themselves to vote it up or down, or having no downtown area plan at all. 

The petition campaign is being sponsored by the Alliance for a Green and Livable Downtown, a loose coalition of Berkeley activists.  

The petition campaign has been particularly confrontational, with petition gatherers charging that many opponents of the petition and referendum have been engaging in a campaign to actively block the petition gatherers from reaching citizens. 

“It’s been a pretty intensive campaign done under incredibly difficult circumstances,” Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey said on Wednesday. Dacey said that petition opponents, whom she calls “blockers,” come out to public locations where petition signatures are being sought and “loom over you. They physically stand between you and the potential signer, and won’t let you talk to them. I’ve never seen tactics like this before.” 

Dacey said that she was “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome of the petition campaign, however. 

There have been charges from petition proponents that the Chamber of Commerce has been financing some of the anti-petition activities.  

Flyers headlined “For a Sustainable, Vibrant & Affordable Downtown We All Agree: Please Don’t Sign The Petition,” featuring a photo of Mayor Tom Bates, State Senator Loni Hancock and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, with the notation “paid for by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee,” have been posted throughout Berkeley. Opponents of the petition campaign have also put up a website listing Bates, Hancock, Skinner and Councilmembers Capitelli, Maio, Wozniak, Wengraf, and Moore as supporters of the council-passed plan, as well as the Greenbelt Alliance, the Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition, Livable Berkeley, TransForm, the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. 

Representatives of the Chamber and Livable Berkeley, a pro-development advocacy group, did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment for this story. 

Certification of the petition signatures will be a two-step process. On Thursday night, the office of Berkeley City Clerk DeAnna Despain will do a manual count of the signatures and—if it is determined that enough signatures have been collected—will issue the petitioners a preliminary certificate. The clerk’s office will have 30 days to check the signatures against the Alameda County voting rolls to ascertain whether enough of those signatures are registered voters to invalidate the Downtown Area Plan. 

Meanwhile, foes of the Downtown Area Plan got a setback this week when the Berkeley City Attorney’s office failed to invalidate passage of the plan. In answer to what she said were “questions raised” following the council passage of the plan last month, Acting Assistant City Attorney Sarah Reynoso issued an official opinion that the way it was passed was valid. 

According to Reynoso’s four-page August 18 memo, questions were raised about the council’s consideration of a supplemental report on the Downtown Area Plan even though that report was not received within the four-day period called for in the council rules, as well as the fact that the motion to extend council deliberations to 11:30 on the night the plan was passed did not conform to council rules by specifying that the Downtown Area Plan was one of the matters to be considered in that extension. In both cases, Reynoso said that the council may “suspend, modify, or waive its own rules,” and did so by implication by moving forward with consideration of the plan even after those rules were broken. 

Reynoso added that “Council Rules are procedural” and said that “failure to strictly observe such procedural rules does not invalidate council action which in all other respects is in compliance with the Charter.” 

While Reynoso did not say in her memo who had raised the questions that sparked her opinion, it was City Councilmember Kriss Worthington who first raised the issue of the validity of consideration of the Downtown Area Plan after the council failed to include specific mention of it in the motion to extend the meeting time on the night the plan was passed. Worthington was one of two city councilmembers—along with Jesse Arreguín—who voted against the plan. Councilmember Max Anderson voted for the plan, but he was not listed in the Chamber of Commerce leaflet denouncing the referendum.