Public Comment

How NOT to Vote in Berkeley's District 8: Avoid the Revolving Door

Nigel Guest
Friday October 24, 2014 - 11:20:00 AM

As a resident of Berkeley's District 8, I'm concerned that the front-runner in our Councilmember's race may be a person who has more potential conflicts of interest than anybody I can recall, namely Mike Cohen. He has a senior position at UC Berkeley, in which he is in charge of licensing the university's technology to commercial enterprises, particularly startups, and he is co-founder and a major stockholder in Peak Democracy, which organizes online forums for local governments. He appears to be within the letter of the FPPC's definition of conflict-of-interest, but he is well outside its spirit. District 8 may be the area most impacted by the activities of UC Berkeley, and its residents are often at loggerheads with the Administration, including multiple citizens' lawsuits against it. Thus any ties to UC are a problem for someone whose job is to support the residents' interests - the incumbent is a case in point. 

Mike has publicly stated that, if elected, he will resign from UC, and I'm sure he will. However: 

Is this any different from the revolving-door politics we decry in Sacramento and Washington, where people shuttle between closely-linked public and private positions? A particularly egregious example is Michael Peevey, the president of the PUC, who was a former CEO of Southern California Edison. And we wonder why our utility providers are so expensive and inefficient! 

Mike's job duties at UC have undoubtedly left him with close personal ties with the management of many Berkeley tech, and particularly synthetic biology, startups. These companies will need zoning and building permits and variances, and who better to help than a City Councilmember? 

According to his own candidate's webpage, as part of his work at UC, Mike co-founded QB3's East Bay Innovation Center. QB3 is the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (aka synthetic biology), and the property is being built by Wareham Development, which has a number of projects in West Berkeley. Wareham, too, needs City permits and variances! 

Regarding Peak Democracy, Mike's mandatory FPPC declaration shows no income from this company, which is unusual, to say the least, for a director and co-founder of a well-established business. Furthermore, the company had a 2011 contract with three City Councilmembers (the strongest proponents of large-scale development on the Council beside the mayor) that was very likely paid for out of the public funds at their disposal. So, as a minimum, it has good connections with the City. Incidentally, Peak Democracy's forum asked for people's opinion on the building of labs, etc. in West Berkeley. It had a grand total of 237 respondents, which nonetheless seemed to satisfy the clients, because it gave them the answer they wanted! 

Fellow residents, I urge you to elect someone who will represent you, not UC and business owners in other Districts, or outside developers.