It’s one of those tedious on-the-one-hand on-the-other-hand kind of things. Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz is retiring (with a pension uncomfortably close to $300k per year) and he’d like to put his thumb on the scale when the question of the successor to his powerful position is weighed by the Berkeley City Council. Is this good?
In theory, I’ve always been in favor of hiring from within an organization when at all possible. It saves the expense of conducting a national search for a replacement administrator, and the decision-makers (the city council, in this case) are likely to know the virtues and deficiencies of the candidate from first-hand experience.
But in this case, it seems like just another example of how governance of Berkeleyans is looking more and more like feudalism instead of like a democracy. No one in recent memory has succeeded to office, either elected or appointed, without an active link to his or her predecessor. Outsiders just don’t have a chance.
Let’s look first at the electeds. Governor Jerry Brown, to start at the top, is the son of a previous governor, which did him no harm the first time he ran for the office. State Senator Loni Hancock, the former Berkeley mayor, is the wife of previous Assemblymember and current Mayor Tom Bates, who was succeeded in his last office by his longtime aide Dion Aroner, who migrated to the Senate after she was term-limited out and was then succeeded by Hancock, who then hand-picked and endorsed Nancy Skinner, who had been a colleague on the Berkeley City Council with her.
Whew! Sounds like the biblical Begats, doesn’t it? Even on the Berkeley City Council itself, two of the current members are former aides to councilmembers. (And we won’t even get into the activities of Aroner’s current lobbying firm, now an arm of the Safeway expansion effort…)
This kind of manipulation doesn’t always produce bad results. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who’s sharp as a tack and very good at her job, was handpicked and eased into office by her predecessor, former Berkeley councilmember Ron Dellums, who went on to become mayor of Oakland. But by and large, citizen candidates are at a serious disadvantage if they try to enter these exclusive clubs.
Again in theory, Berkeley has a “weak mayor” charter. According to plan, the mayor should function simply as an at-large member of the council who also presides over meetings and appears in ceremonial contexts as needed. But Tom Bates, probably because of his experience wheeling and dealing in Sacramento, has managed to abrogate a fair amount of power to himself in his two terms as Berkeley mayor, notably by using the ploy of controlling the council’s agenda through a subcommittee which operates out of the limelight. And the City Manager has cooperated hand in glove with this strategy.
This is not necessarily wrong, according to the city charter. The tradition of having a powerful manager and a relatively powerless elected body started with a reaction against political machines in the 1920s and 1930s, and it’s mostly been followed in Berkeley and other California cities of similar size since then. Berkeley’s current city council is unusually weak even by California standards, with the majority (most votes are 7-2 or 6-3) voting at the behest of city staff and/or the mayor most of the time. The mayor occasionally intervenes on behalf of his favorite developers, but he also takes a lot of long and luxurious vacations as befits the retiree which he actually is.
City Manager Kamlarz achieved his current position of eminence and ample compensation by operating under the radar and being Mister Nice Guy in public. On his watch, he and his fellow employees did well, very well, and citizens didn’t bother to find out why.
He was famous, over his decades as Deputy City Manager, for “finding” money for councilmembers’ pet projects when there was a budget crunch. His strategy was pretty simple: his initial budgets just allocated funds to various areas which were never intended to be spent, and which could therefore be “found” when political exigencies required it.
In my years on the Landmark Preservation Commission I wasted many a long hour discussing maintenance projects for key city properties that never actually happened. Restoring the fountain in MLK Civic Center Park and repairing the clubhouse in John Hinkle Park are just two examples. Members of other commissions have told me about similar phantom projects which never materialized, and were probably never intended to.
Two of our four branch libraries experienced “demolition by neglect” with this strategy. General fund money which should have gone to repair them in years of relative economic stability wasn’t spent when it was available. Instead, managerial sleight of hand substituted expensive rebuilding funded by a bond issue approved in a ballot measure now generally conceded, by those who bother to try to understand it, as having been deceptively worded by the city administration. Oh well…
There’s no question that Kamlarz is indeed a Nice Guy. I was among those who applauded his appointment eight years ago because I genuinely liked him. As a good liberal, he’s taken excellent care of his city employee colleagues over the years.
But now I think that Berkeley doesn’t need more of the same, especially when unfunded employee pension liabilities threaten to sink the ship in the coming years. As much as I would like to applaud the symbolism of his choice of Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel to be Berkeley’s first female city manager, that’s not nearly enough to guarantee her the job. City Attorney Zach Cowan, appointed directly by the city manager, slid into succeeding his boss Manuela Albuquerque on skids greased by Kamlarz, and he’s been almost as bad as she was, which is quite an achievement. (See discussion of sneaky library bond issue ballot measure language, above.) Predictably, the Bates PR engine is already on board with the Kamlarz choice.
Nonetheless, it’s highly unlikely that enough public sentiment will materialize to demand an open search for the next manager. Most of the time, it’s the hired staff that runs the show in Berkeley, not the electeds, and except for a few chronic malcontents citizens are loathe to complain. Why should they? This is the land of the lotus eaters. If you have a lovely view home in the hills, Berkeley’s signature great eats and the income to pay for it all, why kvetch? Too bad about the swimming pools, but there's always the Claremont...
(I’ve toyed with the idea of producing and selling a bumper sticker that says “Keep Berkeley Twee.” I know that one like “Keep Austin Weird” would never fly here. Despite the so-last-millenium Bezerkeley hype in some of the retrograde press, we’ve been way too cozy in recent years.)