Public Comment

What Bell and Berkeley Have in Common

By Victoria Peirotes
Tuesday September 07, 2010 - 10:57:00 AM

Last month the Los Angeles Times reported that the 38,000, largely impoverished city of Bell, CA, paid its city manager $787,000 and its police chief $457,000. CNN videoed citizens who were “Mad as Hell”. State Attorney-General Jerry Brown descended, suggesting laws may have been broken. And CALPERS, the public employee pension administrator, launched an investigation. As it turns out, the salaries were only the tip of the iceberg. The perks and pensions added up to double the numbers above. What does Bell have to do with Berkeley? As it turns out, we have a lot in common. 

Consider the business model of cities. There are shareholders (the voters) who elect a Board of Directors (mayor and council) who in turn hire a Chief Executive Officer or CEO (the city manager). The Council, entrusted with representing the interests of citizen-shareholders, formulates policy which the CEO-City Manager is charged with implementing. The other prime responsibility of the Board (Council) is to provide oversight of the CEO so that directives are implemented. That’s how it is suppose to work in both business and civic environments and, in theory, it’s a good model.  

But when a Board of Directors skirts its responsibilities of policy-making and oversight and defers, or even colludes with the CEO, then we have an Enron situation. Shareholders become 3rd class and lose their life-savings. In a city, when the mayor and council aid and abet the city manager in pursuing his personal interests and ignore the interests of citizen shareholders, the result is the same. The citizens lose their shirts. This is the Bell, CA situation and, I submit, is also Berkeley’s. 

Bell’s elected representatives failed constituents by ceding their oversight powers of the city manager to the city manager. Does “the fox taking care of the henhouse” ring a bell? How are Berkeley’s mayor and council similarly failing? Over the past 6 years, Berkeley elected officials have neglected their primary policy-formulating and oversight responsibilities and deferred instead to the City Manager, Phil Kamlarz.  

Let’s be specific. In spite of long community activist appeals, the Berkeley City Council has adamantly rejected independent audits of city finances or a true telling of the financial miasma the city faces. Instead, they rely entirely on the city manager’s skewed and fragmented financial reporting, and then relay that verbatim to the community. Bell revisited. Council rejected citizen calls to have professional labor negotiators conduct recent city employee labor contract negotiations. Instead they let the City Manager Kamlarz to do so, thus continuing to set his own salary and perks. Bell revisited. Led by Mayor Bates, Council has “spiked” the City Manager’s salary by over 22% in the past 2 years. Bell, CA, revisited. 

If Berkeley needs an example of how the “Public Servant Cartel” has co-opted citizens, via the council connection, then consider the issue of public swimming pools. In the last election voters rejected Measure C, a $22 million bond to “Save Our Pools”. Why? Not because the community doesn’t support our pools. It’s because the city manager, with council’s approval, crafted the measure so that $10 million of that debt would not serve pools or pool users, but would instead be diverted to sustain city employee salaries, perks and pensions. After Measure C was defeated, the Council and City Manager “punished” the community. They closed Willard Pool, the only public pool serving south Berkeley. Council further announced that Willard would be shut down definitively because it was in such irremediable disrepair. Whose fault is this disrepair? Perhaps because, for years, Berkeley has deferred infrastructure maintenance and improvements in order to maintain city employee salary boosts, pension benefits and perks?  

In late July, at the final council meeting before adjourning for summer break, Mayor Bates and council advertised whom they truly represent. They (1) OK’ed a $231,000 budget item (public taxes) to fund “perk” YMCA membership for city employees, and, in the same session, (2) Indicated that the $13,000 to keep the remaining 2 public pools in Berkeley open over the summer at more useable hours would be found, but likely only by deferring some city infrastructure repairs. Simply put, council endorsed city employee benefits of free swim year-round while the public goes wanting. Bell revisited.  

So “What do Bell and Berkeley Have in Common?” Very much it seems. And Berkeley too should be “Mad as Hell”. “For whom does Bell toll?” In fact, Berkeley, “it tolls for thee”.