Drifting and Dreaming at the Midnight Hour—Berkeley Council's Refusal to Compromise on the Student District Threatens Revenue Measures

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 14, 2014 - 12:24:00 PM

Another week, another experiment. As I was dutifully watching the streaming video of the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday (it could also be called the screaming video, which is what I often do as I watch) I was moved to try something akin to liveblogging to inform any readers still around about how annoying it was. I’m not eager to swell the coffers of those who market specialty apps for this purpose however, so I just posted in the “Editor’s Back Fence” section a few observations on particularly irrational moments in a generally surreal evening.

Here, now, I’m reprising and amplifying my observations for the many readers who were not following this site late on Tuesday night. The headline was “Dreamers on the Midnight Special”, since the worst is always saved for last on Berkeley’s somnolent city council. 

First up, in the discussion of whether the southeast corner of Ashby (state Highway 13) and Telegraph was a good place to have a big new Starbucks: testimony from a guy who identified himself to the Berkeley City Council as some kind of managerish person at the Oxford/Center Starbucks. 

(Side note: when chain stores call employees Assistant Managers they’re exempt from paying overtime. Almost all of the Pro testifiers seemed to be managers at one or another Starbucks location.) 

This dreamer said he thought putting a very popular Starbucks on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph would turn that intersection into a pedestrian mecca. Uh-huh. 

Councilmember Linda Maio intelligently figured out (no thanks to the “traffic studies” proferred by Starbucks) that an expected path would be the caffeine-seeking commuters headed for UC in the morning, who would likely look first for a parking place in front of the cafe, and if they didn’t find one would go around the block in a series of right turns which would take them right through the ambulance entrance to Alta Bates hospital. Bad. 

Then there's Dreamer #2, Mayor Tom Bates, who expressed surprise that neighbors reported that the Alta Bates (no relation) Hospital parking garage is full at eight a.m. “When I go there at ten I can find a space!" he said enthusiastically. 

But wait—doesn't he say he's given up his car, that he's a non-driver? Does he really drive to the hospital at 10 a.m. when his Berkeley home is just a few blocks away? 

Luckily in this case, cooler heads prevailed, and the many variances Starbuck’s was demanding were not allowed. They’ll have to improve their proposal or drop it altogether. 

And at the tail end of the meeting, literally at the eleventh hour, was the whole surreal discussion of redistricting. The dreamers on this item were the Mayor's Majority, his tame councilmembers. He’s suckered them into believing that if the city of Berkeley files an action to get a judge to choose which set of council district lines will used in the November local election, the district map which the council selected last fall will be chosen. As Councilmember Jesse Arreguin pointed out (to no avail) the judge will be able to examine ALL of the many plans submitted for consideration, not just the one the council passed, and will be obliged to pick the one which best follows the city charter and state and federal law. Despite Councilmember Capitelli’s plaintive pleas to the contrary, the Mayor’s Majority map looks an awful lot like a gerrymander to me—and a judge might well agree. 

How much will hiring an outside lawyer to sue the city (yes, that's how they're planning to do it!) cost the taxpayers? Plenty. The hired gun will be paid to represent the city as plaintiff, and the city attorney’s paid staff time will be used to defend. If you find this hard to follow, you’re not alone, but it’s expensive. 

What’s stupid about this scenario is that it could all have been avoided by negotiating a compromise. Those who thought the council-passed plan was unfair collected enough signatures to put the decision on the November ballot. At that point the council majority had the choice of adopting a different, fairer plan or leaving the decision for the voters, and they refused to negotiate. 

Councilmember Maio on Tuesday urged them to allow a couple of weeks for more discussion. George Beier (who ran three times against Kriss Worthington in the existing student-majority district) offered his own compromise plan, which was rejected out of hand. But the Mayor’s Majority (Capitelli, Wozniak, Moore, Wengraf and himself) had the votes to bull on through, and they’re doing it. Maio voted with them in the end. 

Those with long memories might remember that this whole silly story started with the desire of some students to use the re-districting mandate as an opportunity to create a campus-area district with an even greater student majority than the one now represented by Kriss Worthington, where students already outnumber non-students. All councilmembers, conscious of the number of students already voting throughout the city, acquiesced to this concept, but then the Mayor’s Majority got greedy. The plan they passed excluded the more progressive Northside co-op students in an obvious attempt to add one more conservative councilmember to the five or six reliable votes Bates already controls with the current districts. 

The petition drive to put the district decision before the voters in a referendum was the result. The council could have compromised at this point, but by deciding instead to go to the ballot they may have put the student district at risk. Annoyed voters might well say a plague on both their houses and just vote the whole thing down. 

Even worse, a lot of citizens will remember how costly this little escapade has been when they're deciding how to vote on the revenue measures the council wants to put on the very same ballot. They might decide that if the councilmembers can’t get along with one another and do what’s best for the city, they don’t need any more money to throw at needless lawsuits. Yes, yes, I know that the taxes and bonds are supposed to be earmarked for popular programs like parks and swimming pools, but all that means is that more money from the general fund will be freed up for foolishness. 

As it happens, I was called by the Nevada-based telephone survey the council has ordered to guide them in what to put on the ballot. It was a string of long, complicated questions, so hard to parse that even a political junkie like me couldn’t figure out what to answer. Zoning Commissioner Sophie Hahn, a lawyer and one smart cookie, told me she was called and had the same reaction. Any decision made on the basis of this survey, which didn’t even mention the student district fiasco, has got to be—I believe the technical term is—bupkis