Deception 101: How to Write a Ballot Measure in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Friday July 20, 2012 - 09:14:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council continues to be a depressing illustration of the decline and fall of democratic government in Berkeley. At meeting after meeting a parade of articulate and well-informed citizens explains to an increasingly out-of-it council what’s happening regarding a cluster of issues crucial to the future of the city, and the council on straight factional votes continues to ignore them.

(At this point, if the Planet allowed anonymous comments, we’d cue the chorus of faceless Fox News wannabes who plague other local online news sources. They would claim that a silent majority of stay-at-homes espouses positions contrary to those of the citizens who actually show up at meetings, speak and write under their real names and show their own faces in public. Uh-huh.)

Below are links to an assortment of respectable news stories from various local media reporting, mostly accurately, what happened at Tuesday’s council meeting. In brief, the council approved ballot language for placing two more items on the ballot for citizen vote in the November election, refused to approve a deal with Safeway to accept trivial payoffs for not opposing its proposed megastore just over the Oakland border, and decided to spend a quarter of a million dollars on YMCA memberships for city employees. 

I went for the second time in as many weeks, not as a reporter but as an open government advocate, to speak in the time allotted for comments on items not on the agenda about the unceremonious and probably illegal way Mayor Tom Bates at the last meeting rammed through placing a measure to prohibit sitting on sidewalks on the November ballot. But I stayed longer than I’d planned, gripped by the kind of morbid fascination which draws spectators to the site of a train wreck. 

What became abundantly clear in the discussions of sweeping changes to the West Berkeley Plan and its zoning regulations (commonly euphemized under the title of “the West Berkeley Project”) and of the $30 million bond issue for street repair is that the strategy of choice is to deceive the voters as much as possible.  

The real progressives, Worthington, Arreguin and Anderson, made valiant tries at telling November voters what they would be voting on, but lost, as usual, because of the iron grip that Bates has over his majority.  

Darryl Moore seems to have turned into the Clarence Thomas of Berkeley, with Bates in the Scalia role. Moore proposes little, says less, and votes with the Bates gang as per instructions. 

Faux-Prog Councilmenber Linda Maio made her characteristic half-hearted attempt to clarify City Attorney Zach Cowan’s suggested shifty ballot language purporting to describe the West Berkeley Project and the bond issue, but got nowhere with it. Cowan quickly set her straight in this exchange with Councilmember Arreguin: 

Arreguin: If we specify certain kinds of projects in the ballot question that the money could be used for… for example in your language you say rain gardens, swales, biofiltration. Does the money have to be used for those purposes? 

Cowan: As written those are examples. The answer would be no. .... I'd not advise it as a general bond drafting question. 

For instance one of the speakers mentioned the library bond. 

It wasn't that it was too general, it was that it was not general enough. 

Whenever you put in a specific requirement or limitation, you are determining for the next X number of years how you can and can't spend the money. We learn more, things change, needs develop. In general, the more general you can be the better. 

Arreguin: If we specify it, it ties our hands so we have to spend it for that purpose. 

Cowan: Yes. 

(Library bond back story: Berkeley voters passed a bond measure to rehabilitate and restore four branch libraries, and then some of them were shocked and surprised when part of the money was spent to demolish two out of four, with promises of rebuilding as yet not fulfilled. The deception left a bad taste in the electorate’s collective mouth—even among citizens like me who didn’t particularly care for the buildings in question. And the same thing happened with a previous vote to support rehabilitation of the warm pool at Berkeley High, now being destroyed with no replacement in sight unless another bond issue passes in November—and don’t count on it even then..) 

It will be impossible, therefore, to know what the money from the streets bond measure will be used for, because it contains the weasel words “such as”. All those lovely rain gardens and bioswales and biofiltration and other environmental goods are just “examples,” not promises: 

There’ll Be Pie in the Sky By and By, Joe Hill sang.  

Which is why environmentalists, including the Sierra Club and Citizens for Eastshore State Park, are very reluctant to support the bond measure, which will look to many like yet another blank check for those who control Berkeley to use any way they please, a slush fund which might all be spent improving streets in the hills or raising administrators’ pensions or paying for their health club memberships. 

And it will also be impossible for voters to find out what the outcome of passing the West Berkeley Project initiative will be because the ballot language there is also deliberately vague. 

Here’s what Kriss Worthington thought of the proposed description of that measure : 

“The motion that is before us is deceptive in describing what the actual implications are of what we're voting on. It's deceptive in implying the limits that are not provided for in the measure. It's deceptive in providing that unspecified community and environmental benefits are guaranteed to happen, when all we know is it's going to go to the Planning Commission and some day something will come back that may be wonderful and may be horrible. 

The entire foundation of this ballot measure is poorly put together. It's inappropriate to adopt such a half-baked plan and it's a tragedy that after all these years of working on it we don't actually have a comprehensive, coherent plan that addresses the issues. So to me, it's an embarrassment that we're adopting this motion as it currently stands. 

And the saddest part of all of this is most of these things could have been negotiated if we didn't go into this with a trickle-down development philosophy. That we're going to guarantee that a certain small number of corporations are going to make megaprofits from a certain amount of office space. And we're going to guarantee they will make their megaprofits but we're giving no guarantee to the community of small businesses and artists and residents as to what they're going to get out of this. 

It doesn't have to be this way. There are many cities and many places that do planning processes that actually come together and bring those different stakeholders and work out reasonable accommodations. After all this time and debate many of the people affected don't know what is going on. The people who are affected the most have told us again and again and again this is not ready for prime time. It's tragic we will have another ballot measure that will contribute to the negative atmosphere in Berkeley this year.” 

And about that Safeway vote…Councilmembers fell all over themselves to unanimously endorse the enunciated concerns of twenty or so well-spoken members of the comfortable educated bourgeoisie, with two and maybe three environmental attorneys in their number, who live on the east end of the Oakland-Berkeley border. I’m one of them, since I live on Ashby, on the third leg of the heavily trafficked triangle with College and Claremont which will be severely impacted by Safeway’s proposed mini-mall expansion, and I threw in my two cents with everyone else.  

I appreciate the courtesy with which the concerns of my neighbors and myself were received. The council made the right decision, no doubt about it. 

Councilman Max Anderson, who represents the less affluent west end of the Oakland-Berkeley border and recounted his bad experience with Safeway when they closed a store in his district, voted with his colleagues from the north and east on this one. But he highlighted the irony in the way comments from the east end residents were treated, as compared to those of his West Berkeley constituents who oppose the West Berkeley project. 

He endorsed “...the concept of having a complete package before you decide on it,” but said he wished that “the same logic was applied to the West Berkeley plan.” 

“Seems to be an interesting divergence of examples here...” he noted with sarcastic understatement. 

Could class—that dirty word in American politics—have anything to do with it? Surely not! 

One thing is sure—it’s going to be a lean year for bumpersticker vendors in Berkeley. . With regret, since I’d like to see the warm pool rebuilt, I expect that for a lot of voters, just one model will suffice: Vote No on Everything, Teach Them a Lesson.  

A negative atmosphere, indeed. 

Read all about it: