The Editor's Back Fence

New: Watch the Berkeley City Council! Tell Us What Happens!

Tuesday November 27, 2012 - 12:05:00 PM

Okay, folks, you’re up! The new-old Berkeley City Council starts its next term tonight, and watchdogs are desperately needed. While you’re not paying attention, your tax dollars are being allocated, and not always in ways you might want. You need to keep your eye on the ball. Herein, a quick primer on how you can do this. 

First, quickly scan the council agenda. Daunting, isn’t it? And it’s hard to figure out what’s going to be discussed because the language is evasive. Take this item for example: 

“Budget Referral: Annual Grant for Sunday Streets Events Refer to the 2013 budget process an ongoing budget item of $30,000 to cover City fees for twice-annual Sunday Streets events in Berkeley.” 

Remember the Sunday they closed off Shattuck and people were able to walk in the streets? Pleasant, yes, but lots of city services were needed to make it happen: police, street sweepers, etc.. Who paid for them? Usually event organizers are supposed to pay city fees to cover the cost of their events, but now Livable Berkeley, the lobbying organization which put Sunday Streets on, wants a give-back. 

According to Carolyn Jones’ story in the S.F. Chronicle (and why should we doubt her?): 

“Livable Berkeley is asking the city to waive its costs for the Oct. 14 event, plus future Sunday Streets. The event included more than just a street closure. There were yoga and rhumba classes, a climbing wall, soccer games, a music stage with amplifiers powered by bicycles, and chess games with 3-foot-high chess pieces.” 

It’s the classic political strategy described by Juvenal in ancient Rome, as recalled for us by Wikipedia: 

"Bread and Circuses (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace…”
Did the populace enjoy it? Well, at least some of them did, but they were most likely the same well-behaved burgers who gladly voted to continue business as usual on the city council in the election. 

But do these extravaganzas do anything to address what downtown property interests would like to identify as the real problem with their business model, disreputable street life which drives off customers? 

If bread and circuses don’t work to make downtown Berkeley into heaven itself, let’s consider the relative virtues of carrots and sticks. 

The recently defeated Measure S was a ploy by the big property owners plus some gormless restauranteurs to create another stick with which to smite the ne’er-do-wells who frequent Berkeley’s commercial areas, but the voters—at least a majority of them—weren’t fooled into thinking it would work. 

Now, how about trying a carrot or two? What might work—or at least it’s worth a try—is granting the request, also on tonight’s council agenda, by Youth Spirit Artworks for $50,000 to team up with existing homeless youth services to get and keep homeless youth off Berkeley Streets through jobs creating saleable art works, combined with referrals to services and shelter. 

Youth Spirit Artworks is a very successful program for putting unemployed and often homeless young people to work. It’s currently located on Adeline in South Berkeley, but the sponsors propose to move it to University Avenue in Central Berkeley, next door to the existing YEAH shelter which gives homeless young people a place to sleep at night for a few months of the year. 

Currently these kids have nowhere to go during the day, and many of them are the same kids excoriated for sitting on the sidewalks downtown. Much better they should be next door at Youth Spirit making art stuff to sell. 

Common sense suggests that getting them off the street and into productive employment would be a good use of city money…perhaps even better than providing yoga and rhumba classes a couple of times a year for the already housed. 

Which should the council choose? 

In days gone by, a professional reporter might have watched council meetings for you and provided a nice printed summary of what happened, but this is the brave new world of citizen media, so you’re on your own. 

This is not a quandary the Planet is going to bail you out of this time. Your assignment: Watch the darn city council meeting yourself. You could actually go to the meeting in person, but it’s also on cable TV, and even available as a streaming video right here in the very same computer you’re using to read the Planet. 

Just use the same link to the council agenda, and on that page should be another link to the council meeting, so you can watch it at home. After the meeting’s over, this link should, in a day or so, turn into a link to the pre-recorded video, so you can watch at your leisure and even fast forward to the two items in question, so you can see how the council made its decision on which one to fund. 

And if it’s not too much to ask, I might hope that somewhere out there are Planet readers who would like to volunteer to email us their very own reports about what the council decided. I’ll just repeat what I said in the first paragraph, now you’re up! 

Me, I’m going to my granddaughter’s birthday party tonight.