Whatever Happened to Democracy in Berkeley?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday December 06, 2013 - 09:31:00 AM

If you are looking for evidence that democratic decision-making is breaking down everywhere, not just in Washington, but even—god forbid—in formerly progressive Berkeley, you need look no further than two excellent pieces which appeared this week in local media. 

On the Berkeleyside site, Emilie Raguso’s report on Tuesday’s city council meeting, Redistricting map approved, referendum idea looms, shows how incumbent councilmembers, most likely at the behest of the avaricious developers who backed their campaigns, are trying to systematically eliminate progressive opposition on the council. 

And in the East Bay Express, Steven Tavares traces how conservative elements covertly fund campaigns, in his piece Sit/Lie Committee Violated Berkeley Election Laws, subheaded “The city's ethics commission plans to fine the Yes on Measure S committee for failing to report more than fifty cash payments to Election Day workers”. 

As it happens, despite my often-expressed disillusionment with the political arena, I witnessed the meetings which these pieces describe. The Berkeley Fair Campaign Practices Commission (BFCP) did indeed vote to fine the Yes on S committee, supporters of an initiative to ban sitting on city sidewalks, in a campaign which was organized by the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association (which many call the Downtown Business Association). Measure S was narrowly defeated in the last election. 

Yes on S was indeed cited under the Berkeley Election Reform Act (BERA)for not reporting payments to election day campaigners. But the $3000 fine which was discussed at the BFCPC meeting would be just a slap on the wrist for a committee which raised a bunch of cash and will soon disappear. And Berkeley City Attorney Kristy Van Herick has been authorized by the commission to negotiate a settlement with Yes on S’s attorneys at the Sutton Law Firm, one of the most powerful election law firms in the state, so that slap might be even lighter when it’s finally administered. 

Tavares missed one important wrinkle in an otherwise complete story. The FCPC has declined to decide whether Yes on S campaign funding from the DBA was laundered through the Berkeley Democratic Club, which despite its name is just one of several local “Democratic” clubs, and the most conservative of them in a district with essentially no Republicans. The BDC has so far managed to dodge the relatively strict reporting requirements of BERA by claiming to be a statewide committee—and California’s state reporting laws are much weaker. 

The Catch-22 in the discussion, spearheaded at the meeting by progressive Commissioner Zelda Bronstein, was that the threshold question of whether the city or the state has jurisdiction over campaign finance reporting is triggered by how much an organization spends on local versus statewide campaigns. Van Herick, who is city staff for the Berkeley commission, didn’t investigate the identity of a recipient of an expenditure in the BDC’s contribution report which was simply listed as “initiative”. 

Without finding out who got the money, an accurate apportionment to establish jurisdiction can’t be made. The commission asked her to follow up, but as yet nothing seems to have come of the request. Nevertheless, the California Secretary of State’s office is now investigating BDC’s compliance with state law, so something just might come of the charges. 

Tuesday’s council meeting provided a graphic demonstration of how the majority on Berkeley’s City Council has turned into a rubber stamp for whatever Mayor Tom Bates, now in his second decade in office, wants and asks the staff to promote. Every ten years, following the U.S. census, the council is charged with rearranging the council district boundaries to reflect population changes. This time, through a series of slate-of-hand manipulations of the rules too complicated to explain here, the council majority engineered an up-or-down vote on a proposal from student government pols who controlled the Associated Students of the University of California last year. The announced intention was to create a district with a super-majority of student voters, so that the council would be sure to have at least one student member at all times. 

The tricky wrinkle here is that the proposal endorsed by staff leaves out the Northside co-op voters, generally the most progressive element in the near-UC electorate. The result is that Fraternity Row residents, traditionally conservative, reach a tipping point which will probably let them select the student councilmember. At Tuesday’s meeting a strong majority of speakers and the varied organizations they represented endorsed instead a set of district boundaries which was more broadly inclusive. 

Raguso did a good job of capturing the tone of the meeting, which I watched online. She quoted the nadir of the councilmembers’ comments, the place where ex-prog Vice-Mayor Linda Maio shed crocodile tears because she was [accurately] called out as “regressive” and Laurie Capitelli claimed to be progressive, which he’s never been. 

All the councilmembers, all three progs and all six cons, are clearly pandering to the student vote, but they want their own kind of students to control the seat. In fact, I myself happen to think that pushing all the students who live near campus into a single district of any kind is a poor idea. The current District 7 is 70% students, and Councilmember Kriss Worthington has had to court student support to get elected. As a result, he’s done a good job of reflecting their interests. 

Creating an 80% or 90% student ghetto would not be an improvement, regardless of which students are included. Students provide useful leavening wherever they are, requiring candidates to look beyond potholes and garbage collection as they campaign. As a pressure group in the several districts around the U.C. campus, they can do more for themselves and future generations of students who will take their place when they graduate and move on. 

There’s talk of a referendum on this decision—I’ve already gotten a communication posted on the Berkeley Citizens’ Action list-serv calling for volunteers to circulate petitions. That would be a good start, but even more reform is needed. 

While petitioners are at it, they might consider including a measure to create a West Berkeley district which would more accurately reflect the community of interest in that neighborhood, which is under perpetual siege from speculative developers backed by those in city hall whose campaigns they’ve funded. 

Also, how about using the ballot process to amend the Berkeley Election Reform Act to make money-laundering impossible? Currently individual contributions to campaigns are limited, but phony “non-partisan” committees can spend as much as they want without accounting for where the money came from. Citizens United, anyone? 

And the district election model seems to have broken down. As long as a majority sitting councilmembers have the power to gerrymander district boundaries at will to perpetuate their own faction, any current majority can extend its rule unchallenged. How about taking redistricting away from those who benefit from it, and establishing an independent body to draw the boundaries, as the state of California has successfully done? 

One more improvement would be to add two at-large councilmembers to represent the whole city, since Berkeley is getting more and more stratified by elevation and income. The mayor, currently the only at-large councilmember, usually speaks for big landowners and U.C. Berkeley. 

All in all, maybe Berkeley needs to have a citizens’ charter revision convention to come up with a whole new set of ideas for democratizing city government. Things are badly out of whack at the moment.