Council to Acknowledge Referendum Success

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday October 08, 2009 - 12:27:00 PM

The Berkeley City Council returns Tuesday night to its most controversial subject of the year—the Downtown Area Plan—but the planned agenda item itself is unlikely to generate controversy. 

The meeting will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 13, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Old Berkeley City Hall building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

On the consent calendar agenda—where no debate is planned—is council “acknowledgment” of the ruling by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters that the recent Berkeley citizen petition drive to invalidate the council’s passage of the Downtown Area Plan “contains the requisite number of valid signatures.” 

There do not appear to be any plans by the council to challenge the registrar’s ruling. The petitioners needed 5,558 valid signatures to throw out the Downtown Area Plan, and Mayor Tom Bates—who led the council fight to pass the plan and led opposition to the referendum—publicly conceded that its opponents had enough valid signatures shortly after the petition drive ended, telling the Daily Planet that “apparently enough” signatures had been collected after an estimated 9,200 were turned in to the registrar’s office. 

The council now has two options regarding an overall economic development plan for its downtown area. It can pass a new plan with substantial differences from the original Downtown Area Plan, crafting enough changes to forestall another successful petition drive. Or it can send the issue to Berkeley voters in June of next year, giving them an up or down vote on the council-passed plan. If voters approve the Downtown Area Plan in that election, the plan will go into effect. If voters don’t approve the plan, the council can work to approve a new plan or it can opt—for the time being, at least—to continue to develop Berkeley’s downtown under the city’s General Plan and zoning ordinances, without a specific Downtown Area Plan to guide the process. 

Mayor Bates has already indicated that he will first attempt to make enough modifications to pass a new plan that is more acceptable to at least some of the original plan’s critics. 

A spokesperson for the Registrar of Voters office said that the office used state law procedures to do a random sampling review of 500 of the 9,200 signatures. The registrar made the certification ruling after it was determined that there were enough valid signatures in the sample that it was likely a full review would yield the required 5,558, and the City of Berkeley was notified of that ruling by mail on Sept. 21. 

The council will step into a perennially contentious issue on Tuesday night when it plans to deliberate about what directions to give the city manager’s office for the development of a Wireless Telecommunications Master Plan. Once it is developed by staff and passed by the council, the plan will set city policy on the placement of cellphone antenna towers throughout Berkeley, an issue that almost always draws spirited citizen complaint when the council is asked by cellphone companies to approve new locations or expanded towers on existing facilities. Cities throughout the country are restricted by federal law on the criteria they can use for regulating cellphone towers. Health concerns—the issue around which most of the citizen complaints are raised—are one of the matters that are off-limits for cities to consider. 

Also on Tuesday, the council will be asked to agree to Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s resolution to ask AC Transit and the Metropolitan Transit Commission to move forward with a proposed $80 million swap out of AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit funds so that the money can be used to prevent the bus district’s proposed January bus-line and service cuts. If the swap-out is approved by MTC and AC Transit, it could set back the start of BRT construction by a year, or even force a complete overhaul of the ambitious, three-city project. Worthington has been a BRT supporter, but he says that the proposed line cuts pose such a threat to public transit in Berkeley and the East Bay that BRT should be temporarily set back in order to hold those cuts off. 

Worthington has already gathered an array of East Bay political officeholders to support the proposed BRT fund swap, including Berkeley City Councilmembers Darryl Moore, Linda Maio, and Gordon Wozniak, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, and Oakland City Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan (a former AC Transit boardmember) and Larry Reid. 

Tuesday’s meeting will be preceded by a 5 p.m. staff-led budget update, which will give economic data in the city compiled since the passage of the city budget last June but will also focus on actions taken by the California Legislature that are having an effect on Berkeley’s budget.