A proposal at Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting could constrain Berkeley’s recent practice of settling city land use lawsuits behind closed doors.
Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Kriss Worthington have proposed approving in principle the concept of requiring all future confidentiality agreements to include a provision for public review and comment on any tentative land use, master plan, or long range plan agreement before final council action. They want the city manager to return with appropriate implementation language.
The proposal comes amid harsh criticism from neighborhood leaders over a deal to settle a city lawsuit against UC Berkeley regarding the campus’ Long Range Development Plan. A confidentiality agreement between the city and UC to apply to the negotiations was interpreted by the city attorney’s office as precluding the council from disclosing the proposed settlement for public comment until after both sides approved the deal.
“I was shocked that we were not able to take the agreement to the public,” Bates said. “I want to clarify that it will never happen again.”
If it passes, the proposal would make Berkeley one of the first cities in California to codify the right of residents to comment on certain types of settlements, said Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition, an open government advocate. But the ordinance, he added, “would simply codify a standard political practice in most local governments.”
Santa Cruz City Attorney John Barisone said that city’s council decides on a case-by-case basis whether or not a lawsuit is far-reaching enough to allow for public review of a proposed settlement.
“Obviously when dealing with the university it will be of general public interest [to disclose a settlement],” he said.
Requiring proposed settlements to be released for public comment can make negotiations more difficult, Barisone said. “When you’re dealing with a business or corporate entity they are not always willing to go through a public tongue lashing.”
State law allows cities to settle lawsuits without public input.
Councilmember Betty Olds questioned the wisdom of disclosing every land use lawsuit to public scrutiny and said that in light of the UC settlement, the proposal seemed too late.
“We’re locking the barn door after the horse was stolen,” she said.
Under the settlement, the city withdrew its lawsuit contesting the university’s Long Range Development Plan and the university doubled its payments for city services and agreed to work with the city on new zoning rules for the downtown.
In more fallout from the UC settlement, the council is scheduled to vote on allowing UC Berkeley to pay reduced sewer fees. In April, the council passed sewer fees requiring UC Berkeley—a state institution exempt from local fees and taxes—to pay a higher rate, approximately $2.1 million for next year.
But the city slipped in a clause allowing it to cut a separate deal with UC pending the resolution of settlement talks. The settlement agreement calls for UC to pay Berkeley $200,000 a year for sewer services—roughly $300,00 less than it paid this year. The city is supplementing its sewer budget with money from property taxes. City Manager Phil Kamlarz has said that, despite reduced payments from UC, Berkeley would not have to further increase sewer fees for residents this year, which are already scheduled to go up by 3 percent.
With one week to go before the city must pass a balanced budget, the council will hold a public hearing and debate a proposal from Mayor Bates on how to spend unallocated funds.
The city has ordered departments to cut their budgets 10 percent to help close an $8.9 million deficit in the city’s general fund. However the city has received an unexpected windfall from higher than expected revenues from a tax on property transfers. The council has set aside most of the money for capital projects like street repair and a new police dispatch system, but there is still roughly $700,000 for the council to allocate.
Mayor Bates’ proposal calls for spending $267,974 up front and holding off on allocating the rest of the funds until December, when the city has a better sense of whether the tax revenues will remain high.
Bates calls for spending $80,000 to restore the Berkeley Guides for six months, $40,000 for Berkeley Youth Alternatives’ employment program, $12,500 to extend for six months the contract of Pedal Express to deliver interoffice mail by bicycle, and $24,163 to maintain the city’s civic arts coordinator as a full time position through December.
If property tax revenues remain strong, the mayor proposes to then spend $40,000 on a crime analyst, $38,802 to help low income children obtain hearing aids, $50,000 to pay for a gate to close off a new bicycle path at night, $44,000 for civic arts grants and $19,643 to pay for safety escorts at the Ashby BART station.
Competing plans have been issued by the Human Welfare and Community Action Commission, which has called for restoring over $1.1 million to community non-profits that provide services to the poor. In addition, Councilmember Worthington has proposed restoring $600,000 in community non-profits funding.
• The council will again consider whether to require a public hearing before the Zoning Adjustment Board to issue permits to demolish 24 apartments in the Drayage, an illegal live-work warehouse in West Berkeley.
• Mayor Bates and Linda Maio have proposed that the council urge county lawmakers to select a registrar of voters who favors instant runoff voting. The outgoing registrar, Bradley Clark, has been seen by IRV supporters as an opponent of the system Berkeley voters approved last year.
• The council will be asked to amend city election laws to allow credit and debit cards for campaign expenditures.