Three Berkeley Stories Which Might Be Happening

By Becky O'Malley
Friday January 31, 2014 - 03:27:00 PM

Readers keep calling and writing to tell me about things they know are going wrong in Berkeley, as if I could do something about it. I wish.

They hope that I still command the services of crack reporters who will dig deep into stories of evil intent and actual wrongdoing, and that when the news is out the people will put a stop to it, whatever it might be. Again, I wish.

I originally became a journalist because I thought that if you told people the truth, the truth would make them free. This came after a period of working in politics, managing campaigns and marching for causes. We were telling the truth there, too, but seldom was anyone paying attention, though we had our successes as well as a lot of failures.

So I shifted to journalism and adopted a new slogan: let people know what’s coming down before it lands on them. The idea was that even if you couldn’t persuade, you could at least warn, and then folks would be on their own to take the appropriate action. That strategy also produced some good results, but not as many as you might have thought it would.

It turns out that almost nobody wants to hear the bad news. Readers are happy to learn that a new and better pizzeria has opened in their neighborhood, but they don’t want to hear that the one that’s already there has gone under in the recession. And many aspire to be journalists, but competent reporters who can produce consistent results without dissolving into hissy fits when they miss a story are rare.

Now we can no longer pay reporters of any sort. I myself am too old, or maybe just too tired, to do the kind of big investigative pieces I did in my youth, with or without being paid. And yet, with no reporters, competent or otherwise, at my beck and call, I continue to be deluged with plausible-sounding tips from the still-numerous Planet audience. What should I do with them?

Here’s an experiment. I’m going to outline three might-be-true stories which are now circulating in the local gossip mill, and offer them to anyone who wants to pick them up and confirm or disprove the rumors. I would be happy if someone produced a story about any of these for another publication, and would also be happy to publish any results that seemed correct on this site.  

Rampant Rumor #1: Backroom plans are being hatched again to abandon Old City Hall (the Maudelle Shirek Building) or to privatize it. The mayor and some school board members have already started planning to move the council meetings to BUSD’s West Campus without telling councilmembers.  

At the January 21 Berkeley City Council meeting, Mayor Tom Bates introduced a disingenuously titled agenda item: Temporarily Relocate City Council Chambers to 2020 Bonar Street (West Campus) Until the Maudelle Shirek Building is Seismically Retrofitted . He jocularly said he just wanted the council to ask city staff to discuss this option with the Berkeley Unified School District, although using the former cafeteria on this site had been thoroughly discussed by council and rejected about a year and half ago. He asked for public comment before the council discussed the problem—and up popped dedicated gadfly and meeting maven Merrilee Mitchell. But oddly enough, in the online video of the meeting, her comments are blocked by a never-before-seen tape gap. However she told me (and a real-time recording of the meeting on a CD backs her up) that she had reported attending a “two-by-two” committee meeting between two councilmembers and two school board members—and that participants there had already decided to move the council and a host of other city events down to West Campus. 

A parade of neighbors at the January 21 council meeting objected to the impact all these gatherings with attendant cars and crowds would have on their quiet residential neighborhood. The council listened, but did not act. But has the deal already gone down in a back room, Sacramento-style? 

Which leads to … 

Rumor #2: City Hall insiders, including the Mayor and one or more councimembers, are colluding with executives of the Downtown Business Association and Improvement District, to privatize not only old City Hall but one or more of the other elegant civic buildings which make up Berkeley’s Downtown Historic District, specifically the Post Office, perhaps turning them into boutique hotels. 

Far-fetched? Watch the sleight of hand which took place at the last City Council meeting when this item was discussed: Berkeley Civic Center District Zoning Overlay.  

It started out as a good idea, proposed by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin: Ask staff to draft a “zoning overlay”, an ordinance to limit the allowed uses for these important buildings, including the Post Office, to a short list of public uses with public benefits. This would be an end run around commercial developers who might be angling to buy the historic sites and privatize their use. But Arreguin’s proposal was gutted at the very last minute by a Capitelli amendment which added a whole laundry list of additional uses which would effectively turn the zoning change into a toothless tiger. It might be a precursor to taking the site private. 

The maneuver was slickly executed and fooled many—two newspapers which I read seemed to report the outcome of the meeting as a triumph for Save-the-Post-Office. Again, I wish it were so. I hope someone can prove me wrong.  

And here comes: 

Rumor #3, hot off the digital presses yesterday on the February 11 City Council Agenda: Proposed Charter Amendment – Article V, Section 12 – Vacancy in the Office of Mayor or Councilmember and Tie Votes.  

It looks innocuous at first glance, just a little housekeeping detail. Here’s how it’s pitched in the staff report: 


The Charter provisions for Mayor and Council vacancies were previously amended in 1949 and 1974. No updates have been made since then. The provisions are very complex and likely would result in a special election to fill the vacancy. Such an election would be very costly and there is a statutory precedent for enacting alternative procedures. 


These amendments to the Charter will simplify the process for filling a vacancy in the office of Mayor or Councilmember, remove the outdated election deadlines, and allow the City to avoid calling a costly special election by filling vacancies at regular municipal elections." 

Oh sure. Here’s the back story: It’s been a tradition of the ostensibly-progressive-not-exactly-machine which has controlled East Bay politics in the 40 years I’ve lived here to have incumbents resign mid-term and to anoint their successors by getting them appointed to fill vacancies so they can run as incumbents. This isn’t always bad—that’s essentially how Barbara Lee got in, and she’s turned out to be great. But in Berkeley we’ve had more than a quarter century of the Bates/Hancock family dynasty in City Hall and Sacramento, and this charter change is designed to continue their control of the process. 

Here’s the analysis of a long-time observer of Berkeley politics who doesn’t want to be quoted by name: 

“This item is intended to amend the Charter to give the Council the right to appoint the Mayor or a Council seat if there is a vacancy prior to the expiration of the term. Right now the Charter says if there is a vacancy in the office of Mayor or Council member and there is less than a year left in the term a majority of the Council can appoint a successor. Otherwise a special election would have to be called or it would be consolidated into the general municipal or statewide election.  

“We are a charter city and can set our own standards on filling vacancies, so we don’t need to change the law to conform to any state practices. The Berkeley Charter was written explicitly to lean on the side of giving the voters the choice of selecting their Mayor or Councilmember, not to let a group of political insiders select the person. 

“The Mayor's plan is to change the Charter so he can resign and the Council majority can appoint Capitelli before the 2016 election.” 

That would give Bates’ choice, most likely Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, the huge, almost unbeatable advantage of incumbency in that election. 

Makes sense to me. The mayor is getting on (he’ll be 76 next week) and his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock, will be termed out in 2016, when she’ll be 76 and he’ll be 78. Why would he want to run in 2016? And if he’s not going to run, why stick around for two more years? 

But letting go of power is painful. Getting his man appointed as Berkeley mayor by the councilmembers he controls, instead of submitting the choice of a successor to the untrustworthy Berkeley voters, would be one last hurrah for someone whose whole life has been about political ambition. 

Can’t blame a guy for trying. 

As academics have learned to say in their grant applications: Further Research Necessary. You’re welcome to try to confirm or refute the analyses presented here.