Harmony, Not Perfect But Intriguing

By Becky O'Malley
Friday July 19, 2013 - 04:23:00 PM

Trying to reconnect with civic concerns after a month devoted to family matters, I resolved to attend last night’s meeting on Plan Bay Area, a topic which has generated considerable heat and some light on this site and elsewhere in the past few months. It was a joint meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, which, the words of last week's press release from both bodies, is “an integrated transportation and land-use strategy through 2040 that marks the nine-county region’s first long-range plan to meet the requirements of California’s landmark 2008 Senate Bill 375, which calls on each of the state’s 18 metropolitan areas to develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy to accommodate future population growth and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks.”

What’s not to like about that? 

Well, I’d gotten other press releases from other organizations which indicated dissatisfaction with how the proposal on the agenda dealt with important considerations like the provision of affordable housing near job sites, displacement of residents from already affordable urban neighborhoods and inadequate provision for public mass transit. Berkeleyans who have a respectable record of civic involvement were skeptical. Journalists whom I respect had raised questions about the plan. Back in October, Tim Redmond in the San Francisco Bay Guardian had done an exhaustive analysis of potential problems, but I wanted to see for myself what all the excitement was about. 

Kind of. But as the 6:30 start time for the meeting approached, intellectual torpor set in. I couldn’t help remembering that my first assignment for the San Francisco Bay Guardian 40 years ago (surely not!) was covering the nascent ABAG, then housed in the basement of the Claremont Hotel, and I went to many, many meetings where nothing that happened proved to have future effect. This promised to be another one of those.  

I did anticipate some interesting fireworks from some opponents. Zelda Bronstein on this site more than a year ago had identified a constituency of anti-Plan people who could loosely be described as Tea Party types, and they were expected to turn out in force. 

When I check the MTC website for the agenda, I discovered an audio stream for the meeting, and lassitude won out. I chose to listen online while attending to household chores, and it’s a good thing that I did. Zelda, who actually went to part of the meeting, reported a crowded room with impossible sightlines and uncomfortable chairs, while I in the comfort of home could hear the whole thing, including the mind-boggling public comment period.  

If you have six hours to spare, you really ought to listen yourself.  

I’m going to hope that one of our local policy wonks will be moved to do a news analysis on the actual or potential consequences of last night’s meeting. What fascinated and bemused me was the tenor and passion of public comments, which stretched over a couple of hours at least, and the surprisingly harmonic convergence of left and right in many aspects of their analysis. 

Bass notes were provided on what might be called the left, for lack of a more precise term. These were groups like the law firms Public Advocates and Earth Justice. The discourse of the evening centered on the proper role of government, and these commenters had no quarrel with the prerogative and even the duty of government to provide for the common good. They just wanted it done the right way. 

If you want to mandate housing near transit, they said, it must be housing for all and real, funded transit, not just pricey urban condos and wishful thinking. And, they said, let’s keep the beat steady by using CEQA to make sure what you’re doing doesn’t harm instead of help the environment. 

By and large, at the end of the evening they seem to have gotten what they wanted this time. 

On the treble end of the scale, including many of those who might be called right wing, you heard a great variety of the fantastical imaginings of citizens who desperately fear abuse of government power. This included some who could be called Tea Partyish, people who worry most about government spending and don’t want to be told what they can do on their private property. You wonder how they can cope with local zoning laws. 

But there were also themes emanating from very different spheres. I heard an unusually high percentage of Slavic accents among the commenters, people who described themselves as former residents of Eastern Europe, who feared that a communist or fascist coup was imminent. At least one person, a Berkeley resident, supplied an obligato by describing herself as an old leftist and a hippy, citing traditional counter-cultural worries about government spying on us. 

All this seems like an echo of the current remarkably harmonious national uproar coming from both “left” and “right” about the federal government’s role, as revealed by Edward Snowden, in acquiring records of what private citizens do with communication technologies. And then there’s this week’s revelation that along with “Tea Party” the IRS looked for the words “progressive” and “Occupy” on their BOLO (Be On the Look Out) lists used to check on those who sought 501c4 tax exemption status for non-profits which dabble in politics.  

All in all, those who are wary of what government can and can’t do seem to have more in common than they might think.