Public Comment

To the Berkeley City Council: "Elected Representatives of the Poor" are Missing

Elisa Cooper
Friday April 01, 2016 - 02:33:00 PM

I've been trying to raise awareness of the missing Elected Representatives of the Poor for almost 2 years, with apparently no success. This is a complicated issue, but the outcome is vital to the low income residents of Berkeley. I hope people with more political influence than me will take the time to look into this issue and start to speak up.

Dear City Council -

First I would like to thank Council Members Wengraf, Worthington, and Moore for trying to uphold the legal requirement and underlying principle of Elected Representatives of the Poor on the Human Welfare and Community Action Commission.

The packet that laid out the HWCAC restructuring proposals confessed that their practice of appointing people they knew into Elected Representative of the Poor slots was not in compliance with either the spirit or the letter of the law, but they had resorted to that practice over time because they weren't successful at running elections. This is no excuse for breaking the law and depriving poor people of Berkeley of the one place they have a *right* to representation, and that's why everyone agrees that's why proposals to restructure the HWCAC were made in the first place. 

At the 3/29 City Council meeting,Cheryl Davila's supporters threw a lot of smoke bombs, and the evident confusion of City Council led not only to a confirmation of an illegal situation -- it rubber stamped an ongoing betrayal of poor residents of Berkeley. I was present at the HWCAC budget recommendation discussions where they confessed to not being familiar with the programs that they were doing the recommendations for and that they hadn't bothered to do the legwork to research them. They spent their once-a-month meetings discussing global issues and opportunities to network with Council Members. Their resulting uninformed budget analysis contributed to discrimination against the poor in City Council's later budget overview, which - I hope you remember - led to general community outrage. 

The confusion during the City Council meeting was caused by the conflation of two different issues: A) Whether Council Members can remove commissioners. B) Whether the HWCAC has to comply with State and Federal law concerning Elected Representatives of the Poor. 

It seems that City Council members were mainly concerned with (A) even though they were studying the situation through the lens of (B). I had been trying to draw City Council's attention to the lack of Elected Representatives of the Poor for many months, without response, before the Davila case brought the matter to the fore. 

The HWCAC supporters of Cheryl Davila threw numerous smoke bombs to keep (A) entangled with (B) so they could use the issue of whether Council Members could remove commissioners as a justification for hijacking a slot intended for Elected Representatives of the Poor and maintaining their long-standing illegitimate practice of appointing who they like to seats intended for Elected Representatives of the Poor. 

The HWCAC supporters of Davila claimed that their seizure of the slots intended for Elected Representatives of the poor was about "free speech", the righteousness of the pro-Palestinian position, how choosing an elected representatives amongst themselves counts as an election and "democracy", their appreciation of Davila's character, and a complete fiction about City Council's failure to confirm another commissioner they attempted to self-elect into a Representatives of the Poor seat. This is a reference to Leah Simon-Weisberg, a lawyer who leads Tenants Together: she would have made a great Council *appointee* to the HWCAC, but she realized there was a legal problem in that she was neither poor nor genuinely elected. Leah is now running for the Rent Board, and she will serve Berkeley well in that position. 

City Council was so boggled by all this smoke that they lost sight of many alternative options:: 1) Davila could be appointed to a commission where issues like Divestment from Palestine should be discussed. (Council Member Maio brought up the Peace and Justice Commission). 2) City Council could have reversed Moore's decision to remove Davila, leaving her in one of the *appointed* slots, while providing a stronger definition of the work product they expect from the HWCAC. 3) City Council could have just called Davila's supporters on the fact their points were unrelated to the underlying issue of how to fill the seats that were ostensibly reserved for Elected Reps of the Poor and continue to not confirm Davila for that seat while they came up with a plan to get back into compliance with State and Federal law. This plan would involve defining poverty criteria that would assure the "maximum feasible participation" of the poor themselves as well as a procedure for elections. 

Council Member Droste revealed her own confusion over the issue of removing commissioners and the issue of restoring the Elected Representatives of the Poor when she said she was confirming Davila *because* the City needs to have Elected Representatives of the Poor. She obviously missed the point that Davila was neither elected nor poor. (A lot of people may feel poor these days, but there are actual technical definitions that come up when you apply for student loan deferments or the phone lifeline program or various forms of public assistance. Enabling HWCAC to continue to fill out State compliance forms in a dishonest fashion does not fix the compliance problem. 

I know restating what the City Council has already done won't change anything. I'm writing this letter to remind City Council that my remaining option was to file a grievance with the State and Federal agencies that manage CSBG funds as well as the Federal Office of Civil Rights. I've been reluctant to do this because this process takes a long time and the outcome could be Berkeley losing management of CSBG funds. I'd rather get a judge to file injunction against the confirmation of Davila, but this kind of legal action seems too complicated and expensive for me to take up on my own, and I doubt any of the local nonprofits - who are dependent on the City's good will - would help me. 

Therefore, I'm giving City Council the opportunity to suggest some alternative actions I could take to protect the rights of poor people in Berkeley to engage in "maximum feasible participation" in the management of CSBG funds before the step of filing a formal grievance with any ham-handed government agencies. This isn't about how you feel about Davila, how you feel about me, or how you feel about your power over dismissing commissioners: this is about the City illegally abrogating an important right of poor citizens. I hope City Council members of good will have some viable suggestions to offer.