What's the News Today? Or, Skipping EIR on 2707 Rose Might Cause Berkeley Council Future Problems

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 30, 2010 - 07:58:00 AM

The question of how to provide a sustainable information source for a small city in a metropolitan area is ongoing around here. It’s a subset of what now constitutes news, since even on a national level the main “news” outlets are increasingly aggregators (an insider word meaning collectors) of news stories created in other media. The ratio of “new news” to repeats on sites like the Huffington Post is small. 

In Berkeley, in addition to the Planet, there are at least three print papers with online adjuncts and at least one ambitious blog which attempt to deliver the news you need to know. For all of them, soft news, lifestyle copy about home and hearth and fancy food is the easiest to acquire, often without much compensation to the writer, and it fills up a lot of space—which online is virtually infinite.  

Every publication these days is deluged with electronic press releases. It’s been the longstanding habit of newspapers everywhere to simply re-write these, possibly making one or two phone calls, and re-labelling the product “news”, as if it were the product of a stellar staff of trained newhounds.  

Many of these press releases are well written and not misleading, and economy of effort suggests that they should just be passed on intact to the reading public. We’ve been experimenting with this around here, putting online verbatim copies, clearly labeled “press release” for truth in packaging. The best candidates for this treatment are releases from artists, arts organizations, government agencies and advocacy groups. Press offices at universities have for many years produced excellent articles about research topics, particularly in the sciences, and there’s no good reason not to offer them honestly and directly to the reader without re-writing.  

But what about real news? In fact, what is real news? Crime and accident stories would seem to count as real news, yet those also are often re-writes of agency press releases. Realistically, with Public Information Officers in police departments firmly in control, it’s almost impossible for reporters at short-staffed publications—almost all of them these days—to get much more information than these officers are willing to divulge. Again, it seems more honest simply to link to the press releases, and only to run a story if a reporter can make contact with someone not mentioned in the press release. 

Which leaves events, for example city council meetings. Here things happen in real time: plans presented, votes taken. It’s been customary for local news reporters to attend such meetings and in addition to reporting what’s going on up on the dais, to chat with proponents and exponents in the halls about agenda items. But with the advent of streaming video it’s possible to report off-site, and also possible for the citizen with an avid interest in the proceedings to watch them at home either in progress or the next day.  

This week’s Berkeley City Council meeting provides an excellent case in point. It featured only one agenda item where there was any suspense about the outcome, though an item providing some information about how the city staff wants to use housing funds was interesting to watch.  

At least three publications or blogs provided information about Who was there and What happened. This week the Planet launched a new feature, compact summaries of stories and links to press releases or full accounts in other media, so our online readers were able to quickly get the Who and the What about the zoning appeal of a permit for a massive house proposed for 2707 Rose Street.  

Even though I watched the whole affair online, we elected not to duplicate the adequate factual accounts in other media. Taken together, the three versions of the story provided some nice quotes, pictures and details about what happened, and the blog devoted a lot of wordspace to reaction comments, some of which were intelligent. 

But what was lacking in the sum total was the Why. The blog responders and two of the stories touched on the central lesson which could have been extracted from watching the action, but didn’t exactly hit the nail on the head. They missed the important kernel of information: The city staff and the council majority chose to blithely ignore the very clear requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, a reckless decision that may well come back to haunt the city and us taxpayers. 

The attorney for the appellants was Susan Brandt Hawley, probably the leading litigator in the whole state for cases which link the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and preservation, often of historic resources. She and her many neighborhood clients were given only ten minutes to make their whole case, and she had to divide those with her geotechnical expert. But she has often taught continuing education classes for California Bar members (some of which I’ve attended) so she’s good at coming clearly to the point in a hurry.  

Here’s what she told the council: “If there is any evidence before you, facts or reasonable assumptions based on facts or expert opinions, that there might be a significant environmental impact, you can’t exempt this from CEQA.” Period.  

“It’s really a legal question, and I don’t think Mr. Cowan disagrees with me, or Ms. Rickles. The lawyers here agree,” she said. She went on, and no one contradicted her, that “it’s the ‘fair argument’standard:…what you’re looking for here tonight is whether in fact there may be a significant environmental impact.” 

In other words, if anyone has made a fair argument that the project may violate some aspect of CEQA, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to examine the data is required. Not optional. As City Attorney Zach Cowan knows full well, which is why he waffled inconclusively when someone asked him about it on Tuesday. 

Only Councilmembers Arreguin and Worthington demonstrated a mature, intelligent grasp of the legal questions which were before the body. Their colleagues offered inexpert opinions on architecture, aesthetics, history and traffic, with very little data and a lot of speculation on matters clearly beyond their personal expertise. 

All of the council majority’s fluffy opinions about whether or not you might be able to see the house from the road, and all of the staff’s backtracking about whether or not their own regulations mandated the use of story poles to gauge the height of the proposed building were irrelevant to the central proposition which Brandt Hawley clearly advanced. She emphasized that credible evidence that appellants had presented regarding the project’s impact on historic resources (both the house to be demolished and the neighboring historic houses) and about the geology of the building site added up to enough doubt to trigger the requirement for a full EIR. 

Mayor Bates summed up the majority attitude toward the CEQA standard as it pertained to historic resources: “As far as the landmarks commission, I don’t know exacty what happened, but ultimately we are charged, the council is charged, with whether we believe something is a landmark or not, and I believe that every member of this council, everyone one of us has been to the site, so we’ve all seen the site… so I think that’s a false issue.”  

Well, no. It’s the main issue. CEQA cares not a whit whether Mayor Bates or any of the council members believes something is a landmark or not. As long as there’s a credible contention to the contrary, an EIR is required.  

Brandt Hawley asked that a public hearing be scheduled to further examine the evidence, and that would have been a simple effective alternative to the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am way the council dealt with the conflict. The staff had already acknowledged that their report contained major errors, and no one seemed to be able to find the letter about the historic questions which the Landmarks Commission had attempted to put into evidence—which won’t look very good for the city if the case ever gets into court. 

Several council members gushed about what lovely people live near the lovely site, accomplished, educated people all…but what no one said is that most neighbors are also, to put it politely, very well-fixed. Some are even world-renowned lawyers. If disgruntled neighbors who could afford it decided to sue to require the city to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act requirements on the applicant, it could be a very costly boondoggle for the taxpayers. 

Another story with an accompanying commentary which the Planet ran this week could teach the council and the public something. The majority of the Richmond city council decided to let Chevron, the big dog on the block, get away with a perfunctory EIRfor a proposed expansion project. 

Richmond council members got a lesson in CEQA from the appeals court which the Berkeley City Council members might have to learn for themselves the hard way. 

That’s the kind of Why which should be part of reporting on what happens every week, but it’s not easy for overworked reporters to do. In this particular instance I have the advantage of a law degree and years of experience on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but in many other situations I’d be just as baffled as anyone else. Reporters used to have regular beats that they stayed on for years so that they could educate themselves about the ins and outs of what they were reporting on, but in this brave new world it’s a lot harder to become an expert. 



All great minds think alike. Someone else is on a similar kick this morning.