New: Can Measure C Be Saved from Its Friends?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 04, 2010 - 12:45:00 PM

Well, Tuesday is election day, and like many Berkeleyans I still haven’t made up my mind whether or not to vote for Measure C. I’ve never, in my 35 or more years as a Berkeley voter, turned down a request for more funds from our various civic beneficiaries, and I suspect the vast majority of my fellow voters are on the same page. At our house, we’re fortunate that we can afford to pay extra taxes for the benefit of today’s children and tomorrow’s, since we’re past the time of having to support our own. But I have to say that the tone of this particular election campaign has made me rethink the whole concept. It’s hard to vote for a cause whose proponents seem compelled to characterize their opponents as fools, knaves or worse. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Berkeley has always had a small contingent of what used to be called the “Grumpy Old Men”—retired citizens with business experience and sharp pencils who viewed Berkeley’s civic spending patterns with alarm. As time passed and feminism advanced, some women joined their ranks, so they became just “the Grumpies.” 

Some years ago, a group of disabled citizens decided that a ballot measure was the best way to fund the services of emergency attendants which they needed. Cannily, they went first to the leading Grumpies for support. By making a straight-forward presentation of a clear and compelling business case, they won the Grumpies over, and after that it was smooth sailing. And some fast friendships between members of the two groups were an added bonus. 

Contrast this with the recent campaign for Measure C, which has been marked with unnecessary acrimony on both sides. 

Some opponents have made classic Grumpy economic arguments: using bonds instead of taxes to fund what you need costs more over the years because you pay interest on borrowed bond money. Nothing arcane or complicated here, it’s just a judgment call about whether or not that’s wise. 

Trying to evaluate this, I consulted a friend who formerly reported on business for the New York Times and Fortune and knows his finance. What he said is that it’s been conventional to use this kind of borrowed money financing for civic facilities all over the country for years. He also pointed out that if you’re ever going to borrow money, this is the right time to do it, because interest rates are at a 50-year low. 

It’s true that bond financing has sometimes been used as a way of building unnecessary boondoggles, usually sports-related, notably stadiums, so it’s wise for voters to be sure that what they’re buying with borrowed dollars is actually needed. Here it’s up to each of us to decide if we really “need” the kind of aquatic facilities which Measure C will provide. 

Appeals by the proponents have been excessively emotional, in my opinion. (Do you love your children? Would you throw your aged mother off a bus?) Swimming is good exercise for people of all ages and in all kinds of physical conditions, sure. 

I used the warm pool myself for six months after a knee injury, and I got better. Would I have recovered anyhow? Probably. But while I was using the pool I saw people with much worse problems getting a great deal of benefit from the experience, so I don’t discount their needs. 

The pool in its current condition, warts and all, has been serving these users well. Sadly, it’s been subjected by the Berkeley Unified School District to Demolition by Neglect. 

Architect Henrik Bull and others have pointed out, over and over again, that the environmentally correct decision would be to restore and rehabilitate this facility, instead of demolishing it and rebuilding it elsewhere, but school district people, both bureacrats and electeds, seem to be intransigent. Still, as I’ve followed the triumphant progress of the restoration of the Richmond Municipal Natatorium, in a city with much less money than Berkeley, I’ve been ashamed of Berkeley’s anti-green spendthrift ways. 

Despite Berkeley’s flourishing greenwashing industry, our civic institutions, not just here but everywhere in the United States, are in the grip of a serious Edifice Complex. It’s been proven time and again that the greenest building is the one that already exists, but we can’t seem to resist wanting the brand new ones anyhow, regardless of the cost to the planet. 

It’s just possible that, given the current economic climate, the school district’s expansion plans for the site will never materialize, so the warm pool could be restored after all. You could even make the argument that if you’re going to “Vote No To Teach Them A Lesson” it might be school levies you should be voting against, not Measure C. But I won’t make that argument here. 

Then there’s a corollary set of financial arguments that says that it’s possible to vote for one thing and get something else entirely. That one rings sadly true to Berkeley voters with long memories. Just two cases in point: the previous vote for bonds to fix the warm pool, which the city of Berkeley never bothered to use, and the recent vote to restore the branch libraries, which critics now complain is being used instead to demolish and replace two of them. 

Measure C proponents have been much too quick to accuse those who critique their goals or worry about the law of unforeseen consequences of making “false statements”—even of lying. Them’s fightin’ words, not appropriate to apply to a real difference of opinion, and this kind of thing muddies the waters. Too much of it, and voters tend to stay home, to opt out of the argument altogether. 

It’s no lie to say that Measure C proceeds would free up maintenance funds in Berkeley’s city budget which could then be used elsewhere. The appropriate retort, if you need one, is “And what’s wrong with that?” Attacking the character of those who think it’s a bad idea is foolish. 

And I’m profoundly annoyed by the Measure C backer who has demanded prominent placement as a news story for the link to a promotional video, the one with the fair and balanced title of Big Lies against Measure C: Dirty Pool. 

I’m well aware that Shirley Dean and Kriss Worthington have had their edgy moments in the past, and it’s heartwarming that they’re now singing Kumbaya at poolside, but it’s not exactly hot news, since they’ve both made many statements of support for Measure C before this. Shirley, a good writer and a fair-minded person, submitted a fine commentary on the topic several issues back which we gladly published. 

The video is the purported report of a press conference posted on YouTube, complete with simulated crowd noises in the background of the title. The Planet in fact sent the only reporter who showed up for that “press conference”, and he was a citizen volunteer. Like every other news outlet invited to attend, most of them considerably better endowed that we are, we didn’t think this kind of staged media event warranted sending a paid reporter. 

I’ve never met Tom Lord in person, but I’ve recently asked him to try a “Blogbeat” column because he’s made some intelligent comments on local blogs. His analysis of the pool event, as I’d expected, was excellent, thought-provoking. In my opinion it was impartial, or perhaps tilted a bit to the “Yes on C” column. 

We added the link to Measure C’s YouTube video at the end of his piece when it came out. So the wounded howls from one of the three co-chairs of Yes on C were a surprise, and the drumbeat of accusations which have followed was even more so. The co-chair’s main authority for his assertions about the import of passing the measure seems to be the City Attorney’s opinion which by law is attached to the ballot measure. 

What the co-chair doesn’t seem to grasp is that a city attorney’s opinion is just that, an opinion, not a ruling, not proof of whatever it’s asserted in support of. As a lawyer (with an inactive Bar card) I’d demand case law and legal arguments if I really needed proof. 

Which I don’t. 

There have been many many letters and commentaries on this site and elsewhere which should help me and readers make up our minds. The Measure C co-chair, in this current issue of the Planet, has a long matrix wherein he attempts to answer objections raised to his case. I’ve making a big effort to put up all the last minute new letters as they arrive. 

And I’m trying hard, really hard, not to let the incivility with which some backers of Measure C have made their case influence my decision. But I’m not going to vote until I can do it in person on Tuesday, as is my custom, so I hope everyone behaves himself or herself a bit better between now and then. 


[Correction made: The title "chair" was changed to "co-chair" following a complaint from the gentleman in question, Robert Collier, that he was but one of three. ]