Serving the Citizenry Should be the Goal of Berkeley Mayor's Staff

By Becky O'Malley
Friday January 13, 2012 - 05:42:00 PM

Who does the Mayor of Berkeley serve? The city charter provides for a “weak mayor” form of government, with the mayor theoretically having not much more power than an extra at-large councilmember who presides over meetings and cuts ribbons at civic events.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, schooled in the ways of politics by 20-some-odd years in the state legislature and married to the former mayor, has made the most of the job. He is adept at squeezing every possible perk out of the job, though he can’t accept direct pay for his work without losing his state of California pension.

What he does have, and exploits to the max, is a great big city-paid office staff, huge considering what the mayor is supposed to be doing under the charter. When his wife had the job, she increased the staff head count from one (like all the other councilmembers) to four FTEs. They’re well-paid by the city of Berkeley—with 2010 salaries alone totaling close to a half-million dollars, before benefits, which in Berkeley are famously generous.

(These figures come from the San Jose Mercury’s Public Employees Salaries Database—but the city has refused to disclose how much is paid out in benefits despite repeated requests.)

What does the Mayor’s staff do for the citizens of Berkeley, exactly? 

From the Mayor’s website: 


“Julie Sinai, Chief of Staff to the Mayor, serves as the Mayor’s policy advisor on youth, education, jobs, health, social service issues, inter-government relations and is the press contact for the Mayor's Office. [paid $105,956 in 2010]  

“Calvin Fong, Senior Aide to the Mayor, works with the Mayor on transportation, development, land use and housing issues. [$83,508] 

“Nils Moe, Assistant to the Mayor, works on environmental issues, including renewable energy initiatives, the green economy, Berkeley FIRST and climate action policy. He is also the main contact for website issues. [$76,855] 

“Sbeydeh Viveros-Banderas, Assistant to the Mayor, Scheduler and Constituent Services, is the office manager and handles the Mayor's schedule. She also runs the Intern program and handles many constituent services. [$47,748] 

But that’s just the old staff. 

Now the famous revolving door has turned, and Sinai has moved over to work for U.C. Berkeley instead of for the mayor. Some small-minded critics at berkeleyside.com smelled a whiff of corruption even in that move, but there was more to come. 

The revolving door has turned once again. Sinai’s replacement, Judith Iglehart, subject of not one but two paens by Lance Knobel at berkeleyside.com in the last couple of weeks, is a U.C. Berkeley veteran who lately has specialized in business development of university-spawned innovations. 

Here’s part of her bio, from the website of HitBarcelona, a “meat market” where startups are showcased for the edification and potential profit of venture capitalists. (We worked this event, or perhaps one of its progenitors, for our aspiring high tech company many years ago—the only time I ever shook hands with Bill Gates.) 

“During her career at the University of California she worked as a Special Assistant for two Chancellors at Berkeley and four UC Presidents. She served as UC’s Chief Research Development Officer, and Deputy Senior Vice President for Business and Finance, Chief of Staff to the California Senate Majority Floor Leader, as President/CEO of BARTA/TechVentures, a ten county program to identify and assist early stage companies, UC Berkeley’s Director of State and Federal Government Relations, and as the Associate Director of the California Policy Seminar. Today she serves as a State Senate Appointee to the California Governor’s Small Business Board. … Her doctorate explored technology transfer issues at the University of California between 1984-2004. She lives in Piedmont and has two grown children.”
It’s a heady world, that high tech environment, and Iglehart certainly has an impressive list of ex-employers. But what’s someone like that doing as the chief of staff for Tom Bates? Is there something in the works that has yet to be revealed? 

How is she expected to replace someone whose area of responsibility was “youth, education, jobs, health, social service issues, inter-government relations”? 

Well, maybe the third category is relevant, but otherwise why was she hired for this position? There’s a lot in Berkeley that needs doing, but little of it appears to be covered by her resume. 

It’s the small stuff that gets lost in the shuffle, and that’s what the Mayor with his lavish staff ought to be taking care of. 

One small but sensitive example: Someone seems to have sicced the enforcement bullies on the beloved Roxie Deli on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph. Not just someone, actually—knowledgeable Planet correspondents blame the corporate attorneys who are trying to get a liquor license for the Walgreens a couple of blocks away, who might think putting Roxie out of business would improve their chances. 

A citizens’ petition is circulating on behalf of Bill, the proprietor, but what is the Mayor’s office doing about it? Not much, it appears. 

Someone somewhere in the Mayor’s aura seems to have decided that what Berkeley really needs, instead of corner grocers, is more high tech startups. Someone probably thought that the opening as the Mayor’s chief of staff would be the ideal slot for a recruiter of same. 

But whatever happened to the Office of Economic Development? Isn’t it the right locus for that kind of activity, if it’s needed at all? 

As a (retired) entrepreneur who’s actually participated in starting something up, I can testify that adding one more bureaucrat to the Mayor’s office staff won’t make a dime’s worth of difference to location decisions of nascent enterprises. I once was part of a team that surveyed biotech startups for Jerry Brown’s first term Commission on Industrial Innovation. The overwhelming consensus in that field was that the scientists wanted the state simply to meddle out so that they could do their research and develop their products in relative peace. 

Another very relevant question is what Iglehart will expect to be paid. Ironically, Sinai’s salary in the $105,000 range, which would seem generous to a beginning teacher, will look like chump change to someone from the entrepreneurial milieu whose home is in Piedmont. But that’s no reason to pay Iglehart any more than Sinai was making. 

All in all, recent publicity about the compensation of top level bureaucrats in Berkeley and elsewhere indicates that it’s time and past time for the City Council to take a hard look at hiring decisions like this one. That would include the permanent city manager position now supposedly under recruitment, the staffers in the Mayor’s office, and anyone else who’s looking to be paid more than $75,000 a year.