Berkeley councilmembers need to become better listeners

Becky O'Malley
Friday June 16, 2017 - 03:02:00 PM

The decision-making process of the Berkeley City Council needs an attitude adjustment, or a procedural update, or something. In an effort to make sure that important tasks can be completed at a reasonable hour, the new council majority has moved up the start time to 6 p.m., which in theory could get the ceremonial matters and the consent calendar out of the way before tackling the harder stuff at seven.

But at the first meeting under the new schedule, the meeting time was extended at 11:15, no better than it ever was, and so an urgent major proposal before the council was postponed for two more weeks.

As a simpleton who shall be nameless might tweet, SAD!

The major problem, one which has been the major problem in the approximately forty years since I’ve been watching the Berkeley City Council on and off, is that the only reliable way to get the attention of even the best-intentioned city council is to have as many concerned citizens as possible show up in the flesh to make their case in what’s become one or two minute sound-bytes. This problem is not unique to Berkeley, although many who live here and subscribe to the theory of Berkeley exceptionalism would like to think so. I’ve seen the same phenomenon on the Santa Cruz city council, even though they start their meeting in the afternoon with a break for dinner.

It’s fashionable to deride the public comment part of city council agendas as crazy people just sounding off, but in fact I’ve observed, not just once but many times, that citizen input can be the only way elected officials learn about serious problems. The most striking recent example was in Santa Cruz, where the police learned in public comment time that they’d been hornswoggled by ICE into participating in a round-up of undocumented people who had no connection to crime during what they thought was a drug bust, contrary to city policy. (To their credit, the police made a public apology the next day, though the damage was done.)

The very important topic which was left hanging this week by the Berkeley City Council was correcting more than a decade of neglect by requiring developers to include of a substantial number of on-site units for lower-income tenants in the speculative luxury housing which is flooding into Berkeley at the moment. The council didn’t even pass the second best alternative: requiring, in lieu of units, a substantial financial contribution toward construction of affordable housing on other sites.  

What slowed things down was the long line of Berkeleyans who correctly believed that they needed to show up to voice their support of Councilmember Kate Harrison’s eminently sensible proposal for ensuring funding for affordable housing at the lowest income levels. They were matched, not surprisingly, by the developer-funded claque of entitled 20-and-30 somethings who now materialize all over the Bay Area to avow their belief in the high-school level dogma of ideally-efficient markets whenever development is on the agenda at a city council anywhere. 

All of this talking takes a long time, leaving very little time for the sitting councilmembers to deliberate and decide. And yet, they need the input. 

The housing decision was put off for at least two weeks. This upcoming week, another very important topic is on the council agenda, Berkeley’s participation in the militaristic Urban Shield program. Our correspondents in the Planet’s Public Comment section have done an excellent job of stating their conclusions on both topics, so I won’t reiterate what they say here—let’s just say that they’re right on both counts. As always, we’d be happy to run contrary views, but none have been submitted as yet. 

It should be noted, however, that Tuesday’s special council meeting will be at Longfellow School, in anticipation of a big crowd. Also, it’s rumored that the alt-right plans to show its ugly face, so this might not be a pleasant evening, but if you care, you should show up. 

A good solution to the real problem of council decisions being made late at night when both members and constituents are too tired to make much sense has been suggested to me. Perhaps it’s time for the Berkeley City Council to hold New Englands style town-hall meetings, monthly or bi-monthly, with all councilmembers in attendance and paying attention.  

Also, and this is important, no decisions should be made at these meetings. And the councilmembers must commit to actually listening, courteously. Please, eyes off the smartphones, no tweeting allowed.  

Speakers from the public should be given a decent amount of time, enough to make a well-thought-out case for their issues, perhaps three minutes increased to six if someone else yields their time or a councilmember requests it.  

The Berkeley City Council has traditionally takes a looong summer recess, or at least got in the habit of doing slow under the last administration. How about scheduling one of these listening sessions mid-August, with whichever councilmembers are in town present and the rest agreeing to watch the video? 

Can we do it? Worth a try. 

But meanwhile, if you care about affordable housing or militarization of police, you’d better show on the next two Tuesdays to make your voice heard.  

And by the way, Happy Bloomsday.