Data-Free Decision-Making Marches on in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday June 01, 2011 - 12:18:00 PM

In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, There You Go Again. That’s right, the city staff is once again trying to get rid of the major thorns in their otherwise well-padded sides, the citizen commissions who work hard to make sense of Berkeley’s city government. 

I watched the city council last night online with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, a feeling that it was once again Ground Hog Day in Berkeley. It seems that every chance they get our city employees try to rid themselves of the prying eyes of what they clearly consider are busybodies trying to interfere with the smooth operation of business as usual in City Hall. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sympathize with the Governor Walkers of this world who want to penalize public employees for an economy gone sour. But on the other hand, sometimes voters and taxpayers have legitimate beefs with the way public employees operate, which is often high-handed and sometimes badly misinformed. 

This is territory I’ve covered in this space many times before. The current excuse is that Berkeley’s now short of cash, all too true, but exactly the same maneuver was attempted way back in 2005, when things looked much rosier. In a 2005 editorial entitled “Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish, I made good fun of the estimate in the proposal at the time that the total cost savings would amount to about two full time equivalents in salary. That was in a period where city staff seemed to believe that Berkeley was flush with money and would remain so forever. 

So this time the staff, in the person of Deputy City Manager Christine Daniels (who’s rumored to be the designated replacement for City Manager Phil Kamlarz when he retires to collect his generous pension) has made the same proposal completely data-free. That’s right, the “report” which Daniels presented last night with a straight face was totally and completely data-free, which seems to be the preferred decision-making mode for Berkeley these days. 

This is all the report said about possible savings: “FISCAL IMPACTS OF RECOMMENDATION: By consolidating commissions, the City can reduce resources allocated to commission work and realign resources where needed due to other budgetary reductions.” 

How can councilmembers possibly decide what can be saved if they have absolutely no information on what current commissions cost? As I said in 2005 but won’t rehash at length here, citizen commissions more often than not save the city money, since commissioners are often experts in their fields who are volunteering free work as a public service. 

The manager’s report was just embarrassing, it was so flimsy. Several councilmembers, to their credit did, ask where the numbers were, but others blithely went ahead expressing their off-the-cuff opinions about where cuts could be made, with absolutely no information to back them up. 

The whole performance was depressingly parallel to the ongoing discussion of proposals to re-zone West Berkeley, also conducted in a largely data-free environment. Work of this quality would never be acceptable in the business world, and it certainly shouldn’t be in the public sector, where scarce tax dollars are on the line when mistakes are made. 

A couple of councilmembers claimed to be shocked, shocked, that this proposal had surfaced over the holiday weekend, and they claimed that they’d known nothing about it before getting the document this week. If this is really true, they ought to be reading the newspapers more carefully. Carolyn Jones first floated the story in the Sunday Chronicle on April 3. In case anyone missed it, I mentioned her story in this space soon thereafter. 

At last night’s meeting there was a stellar array of commissioners who had managed to find out about the plan speaking in public comment. City staff hadn’t bothered to consult them before coming up with the report. 

The commissioners presented concrete proposals for cost savings that didn’t involve doing away with or consolidating key commissions, including paperless packet distribution and coordinated meeting places and schedules. The staff was asked to come back with some figures about the current cost of commissions, but since they’ve had since 2005 to collect the relevant data and haven’t done so yet, we’ll see if they can do it now. 

In other news on the Engineering Consent front, at press time we’ve received and reprinted a press release from a select group of councilmembers and property owners fronted by mayoral hopeful Laurie Capitelli which purports to show that U.C. grad students just want Telegraph to be safer and nicer, and then they’ll shop there. This probably was intended to be the opening salvo in the renewed attempt to get Berkeley to ban sitting and lying down in some commercial districts. (Many still deny, of course, that any such proposal was ever in the works.) 

Do they still offer Statistics 101 at U.C. Berkeley? Perhaps some bright U.C. student would be willing to help us explain to these councilmembers, property owners, gullible members of the reading public and even the Graduate Student Assembly that a “survey” which polls only whichever subscribers to the graduate student assembly’s email newsletter bother to fill out an electronic form online is not statistically valid as a basis for decision-making. This technique is sometimes called cooking the data. 

The only real hard data to shed some light on this discussion is the figures on actual sales, especially sales tax collections. According to the city’s own economic development department, sales data continue to show that in the current economic decline Telegraph and Downtown have done better than the city’s other shopping districts. 

It’s tempting for some city fathers and mothers to use the current economic crisis as cover for taking a variety of actions which they’ve wanted to do all along anyhow. When their minds are made up, they don’t like to be confused with facts, and the city staff is all too ready to help them in their blissful fact-free decisionmaking.