Perfect Harmony among Berkeley Citizens at Last Night's Watershed City Council Meeting

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday July 11, 2012 - 02:03:00 PM

First, the disclaimer. This is an opinion, not a news report. A couple of the pro-bono reporters who often write for the Planet were at last night’s Berkeley City Council meeting, and they will probably submit reports. Also, there seemed to be a number of reporters from other media in attendance—there’s a good report in the Daily Cal already.

I myself went to the meeting as an advocate for civil liberties, something I’ve been for all of my adult life, from the age of 18 on (and by now there’s a lot of “on” there). When I first came to Berkeley in 1959, Fred Moore was sitting down in front of Hearst Gym to protest what was then mandatory ROTC for all male students, and I was hooked.

(Can you believe that in 1959 all male students at what we then called Cal were forced to undergo compulsory military training, no conscientious objection allowed? We have made a bit of progress since then.)

Fast forward to 2012. Sitting down: an insult to power in 1959, and still making trouble.

Now Berkeley’s formerly progressive Mayor, along with his openly conservative colleagues and a couple of formerly Prog wet noodles who must expect some favors from him, are trying to criminalize the simple act of sitting down on the sidewalk in Berkeley’s commercial districts.

The usual saints came marching in to tell the pols that passing a law to this effect would be…I heard the words illegal, irresponsible, and especially immoral. When they marched, I wanted to be in their number. 

It turns out that actually showing up at a city council meeting is a lot different from watching one on streaming video, as I usually do. For one thing, the video of this meeting seems to have lost its audio after the singing started, so if you were watching at home you might not be able to figure out what was going on. 

Singing, you say? Yes, just when almost all of those lined up to express their opinion about the proposal to put Anti-Sit on the ballot had spoken (everyone but the boss of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce was opposed) folk singer/activists Carol Denney and Andrea Pritchett launched into the rousing anthem familiar from civil rights days and before, “We Shall Not Be Moved”, and the unified audience joined in. 

The three authentic progressive councilmembers (Worthington, Arreguin, Anderson) joined in too.  

(It should be noted here that as the audio started to fade, only one of the three was audible on mike, and while he has a resonant voice, he can’t carry a tune—not mentioning any names of course, but so much for ethnic stereotypes.) 

What was most remarkable about the whole evening was that it was a—well the word watershed comes to mind. The council was supposed to vote on whether to place a bond issue on the ballot. Was it $30 million? 40 million? 50 million? In the confusion that typically marks a Bates-chaired session, who’s counting? 

The stated purpose was streets and watershed—or was it watershed and streets? Max Anderson suggested that there should be specific language in the measure to ensure that persistent flooding in South and West Berkeley be controlled—that would be the watershed part. But as we know, bond measures in Berkeley are treated as blank checks, to be used for whatever the sitting council and/or the staff wants to do with the money after they’ve got it in their hot little hands. (For evidence, see the “restoration” of the South Berkeley Library, now underway on MLK.) The decision was put off until the next council meeting. 

But the real watershed on last night’s agenda was that the diverse audience, some there to oppose the ballot measure asking voters to bless the rape of West Berkeley, others to speak out against Anti-Sit, finally connected the dots. The Anti-Sit people spoke up in support of the small businesses and residents who fear that West Berkeley is being re-zoned for the benefit of the big developers, and the West Berkeleyans realized that Anti-Sitting was yet another move in the lengthy chess match aimed at turning Berkeley over to the large landowners, in this case the ones in the commercial districts. 

There was a clear threat, openly expressed by both councilmembers and citizens, that if the West Berkeley and Anti-Sit measures were sufficiently offensive voters in November might just vote no on everything, even the Streets/Watershed bond.  

At the end of the meeting, everyone was singing along together. 

What actually happened to the Anti-Sit ballot measure? Well, that’s a Brown Act question, isn’t it? The conservative councilmembers fled the scene when the singing started, returning about fifteen minutes later to do something inaudible. All I could hear where I was standing was Kriss Worthington’s repeated request to be allowed to speak on the question before the body, which Bates, as is his habit, shouted down.  

Does the Council have to follow Roberts’ Rules of order? One of our readers sent us a copy of this letter which she wrote to the Berkeley City Attorney: 

Greetings Mr. Attorney,

I was watching the City Council meeting last night when the Mayor illegally cut off council members who requested to speak on the issue of No Sitting and called for a vote. Councilman Kriss Worthington repeatedly challenged this illegal maneuver, but the Mayor proceeded. I would like to add my name to the list of challengers of this illegal action and vote.

Berkeley has a weak mayor system. The mayor is elected at large and is responsible for chairing meetings. Our Mayor has tried to move the system into a strong mayor system and often breaches Robert's Rules of Order. I read a quote today from one of Berkeley's daily newspapers, citing the specific rule that was violated. It follows:

Robert's Rules, Section 42: "The right of members to debate and,
make motions cannot be cut off by the chair's putting a question to vote with
such rapidity as to prevent the members getting the floor after the chair has
inquired if the assembly is ready for the question. Even after the chair has
announced the vote, if it is found that a member arose and addressed the chair
with reasonable promptness after the chair asked, "Are you ready for the
question?" he is then entitled to the floor, and the question is in
exactly the same condition it was before it was put to vote. But if the chair
gives ample opportunity for members to claim the floor before putting the
question and they do not avail themselves of it, they cannot claim the right of
debate after the voting has commenced."

Please overturn the illegal vote and allow council members the rights and privileges accorded in the Rules.

Thank you,

Marcia Poole 

She has a point. But all in all, it was a great meeting. The vocal audience was the very model of what’s best about Berkeley: young, old, every shade of skin and personal style, united in their belief that Berkeley deserves better than it’s gotten for the last ten years under the conservative Bates regime.  

Maybe there’s still hope that the city can be saved. There is an election in November, after all, and I think we’re still allowed to vote.