ENDORSEMENT SPECIAL: Yes on Berkeley Measures U, V, N, O. No on Berkeley Measure M.

By Becky O'Malley
Friday September 28, 2012 - 10:17:00 AM

Today we’re going to try to make some sense out of a passel of ballot measures which address attempts to specify how the city of Berkeley should raise and spend its funds. Really, the best way to figure out what’s going on is to look at all the information which will be on the ballot, and which is now on the city’s website. To make this possible, a full set of links is posted at the bottom of this piece in alphabetical order.

But for a quick take on what’s happening locally, we’ll look at these measures in a different sequence. Voters are being asked by the City Council majority to vote to raise money with two bonds and one tax, which we’ll get to in a moment, but first let’s talk about a pair of initiative measures which reflect citizens’ desire to know more about what the city government is doing with their money before they vote to provide it. 

Measure U is the “Sunshine Ordinance”. In the ten years or so that I’ve been involved with reporting on local government, and even before that, sunshine ordinances have been passed in most of the major cities around the bay: San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and many of the smaller ones as well. Journalists, of course, love them, as do others who value open government and civil liberties. A quick search of the Planet archives reveals a huge number of articles, opinions and editorials on the topic, most of which document Berkeley’s pressing desire for more transparency in government. 

If you read some of these pieces, you’ll see that over this decade various commissions, task forces and the like were set up by Berkeley’s city staff and elected officials to ponder the problem, but the labor of an elephant produced a mouse, the timid and ineffectual Open Government Ordinance passed by the council a couple of years ago. To use another animal metaphor, the problem was that the fox was asked to produce a set of rules to guard the henhouse, with predictable results. 

Citizens who’d been working on the proposal then put their own, much more comprehensive version of a Sunshine Ordinance on the ballot for this November by initiative petition. Some have criticized the result for being too long, but it’s a lot better than anything we have now. It’s well past time for Berkeley to join its sister cities in passing a sunshine ordinance. Vote Yes on the Sunshine Ordinance, Measure U. 

Measure V, branded by proponents as the FACTS (Fiscal Accountability, Clarity, Transparency, Sustainability) ordinance, is another citizen-written attempt to find out what’s going on in city government. It’s simple, criticized by some for being too simple, but it can’t hurt and might help. It requires the administrators to produce biennial certified reports on the city’s unfunded liabilities and to specify what reserves are available to meet them. The penalty, if the report doesn’t appear, is that taxes can’t be passed or increased. With cities all over the country facing bankruptcies, one would hope that the Berkeley city staff already has this information, so that producing the report wouldn’t be hard, but it would be nice to be sure. Vote Yes on Measure V. 

However...then we come to the FACTS committee’s recommendations on the revenue measures on the November ballot, and here I think they’ve gotten off track. They’ve come out against the bond issue (Measure N) and special tax (Measure O) intended to provide Berkeleyans with public swimming pools. Their argument is disingenuous: “Berkeley already has nine+ pools”. Well sure, but only two of them are public pools, the number down by half since the pool at Willard Middle School was filled with dirt and the warm pool at Berkeley High demolished to make way for more construction. 

Kids growing up around the bay need to learn to swim, and swimming is one of the healthiest forms of exercise for adults. Richmond has put Berkeley to shame by restoring its glorious historic Municipal Natatorium, accompanied by a program to make sure their children can all swim before they leave the third grade. We need to do at least as well. 

And shame too on people who say that they don’t want to pay for making one of our pools a warm pool because warm pools are mostly used by disabled people. In the first place, any of us might benefit from the proven therapeutic effect of swimming in warm water at some point. Years ago I injured a shoulder lugging around heavy equipment when I was in the hi-tech business, and Kaiser’s best efforts couldn’t fix it—but three months in Berkeley’s warm pool did the trick. 

A properly managed warm pool could actually be a profit center which would attract users from all over the Bay Area—it could even be some sort of a joint venture with Kaiser and Sutter Health paying to use it. All that’s needed is a little initiative on the part of city staff. 

Both N and O are very specific about intent and execution, and they support a single easily understood agenda. Vote Yes on Measures O and N. 

Measure M (for Money) unfortunately, is a horse of a different color. Here criticism from both the FACTS committee and the Sunshine Ordinance backers, that we don’t know enough about how city funds are spent, is on target. 

Berkeleyans, by and large, are liberal in all senses of the word, including the old-fashioned one of “generous”. They seldom meet a bond issue or a special tax that they don’t like. We do have our share of the other kind, the local equivalent of deficit hawks, people who are deeply suspicious of the possible consequences of unbridled local spending—they’re behind FACTS and a couple of similar groups. 

Another sub-set of Berkeley voters was mightily annoyed when they voted for restoration of Berkeley’s branch libraries and discovered that two of them were instead demolished and rebuilt. They’d like to ban all finance measures because they think the money will be spent for other purposes. 

I tend to be on the liberal side of these equations, but I find the way Measure M was placed on the ballot profoundly disconcerting—as did the three true progressive councilmembers (Worthington, Arreguin, Anderson) the night the Mayor’s captive majority placed it on the ballot over their objections. It was a typical I-have-the-votes strong-arm session by the mayor which rivaled the one which resulted in Measure S, another bad idea. 

Simply put, it creates a slush fund. The council can effectively spend the $30 million in proceeds on almost anything, and you can be pretty sure that most of the money will go to big-time building contractors who make their money from street repair, needed or not. And worse, it's the kind of basic street repair that should be done routinely from the general fund. 

Here’s the official ballot question: 

“Shall the City of Berkeley issue general obligation bonds not exceeding $30,000,000 for street improvements and integrated Green Infrastructure such as rain gardens, swales, bioretention cells and permeable paving, to improve roads, reduce flooding and improve water quality in the creeks and Bay?” 

And here are the weasel words: such as. The measure creates absolutely no obligation to carry out any of the “Green Infrastructure” projects ( and even that name is weaselly). 

Max Anderson was particularly concerned that flooding in South and West Berkeley would continue to be ignored. Kriss Worthington also worried that long-delayed fixes to the way the city handles waste water and storm runoff would yet again be postponed, causing further pollution of Aquatic Park, and that almost all the money would go into potholes, leaving the more crucial “such as” items out of the picture. 

The difference between the pools measures and this one is that O and N are specific, but Measure M is much too vague. It would be better to skip M and ask for a later bond issue, if one is needed, that is much more upfront about how the proceeds would be spent. Berkeley citizens don’t need to sign another blank check. Vote No on Measure M. 

If you’re still confused, look below for links to the wealth of pro-and-con opinion which you’ll see on your ballot, which will be available in print for early voters on October 8. Just don’t believe everything you read there. In particular, the “impartial” city attorney’s analyses have been challenged by a variety of advocates, so look before you leap. 



Measure M - General Obligation Bond for Streets and Related Watershed Improvements
Ballot Question and Full Text
City Attorney Impartial Analysis
Measure M - Tax Rate Statement
Argument in Favor of Measure M
Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure M
Argument Against Measure M
Rebuttal to Argument Against Measure M 

Measure N - General Obligation Bond for Pools and Associated Facilities
Ballot Question and Full Text
Measure N - Tax Rate Statement
City Attorney Impartial Analysis
Argument in Favor of Measure N
Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure N
Argument Against Measure N
Rebuttal to Argument Against Measure N 

Measure O - Special Tax to Fund Operation and Maintenance of the Replacement Warm Water and Willard Pools
Ballot Question and Full Text
City Attorney Impartial Analysis
Argument in Favor of Measure O
Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure O
Argument Against Measure O
Rebuttal to Argument Against Measure O 

Measure U - Initiative Ordinance Enacting New Requirements for the City Council and Rent Stabilization Board and Boards and Commissions Relating to Agendas and Meetings, Requiring Additional Disclosure of Public Records, and Creating a New Commission (Sunshine Ordinance)
Ballot Question and Full Text
City Attorney Impartial Analysis
Argument in Favor of Measure U
Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure U
Argument Against Measure U
Rebuttal to Argument Against Measure U 

Measure V - Initiative Ordinance Requiring the City to Prepare Biennial, Certified Financial Reports of Its Financial Obligations for the Next 20 Year Period; and Requiring Certification of Such Reports Before Council May Propose or Voters May Approve Any Debt Financing, or New or Increased City Taxes, and Before Council May Approve Any Assessments or Property-Related Fees (FACTS Initiative)
Ballot Questions and Full Text
City Attorney Impartial Analysis
Argument in Favor of Measure V
Rebuttal to Argument in Favor of Measure V
Argument Against Measure V
Rebuttal to Argument Against Measure V