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Planning Chair Ousted in Surprise Move

By Richard Brenneman
Friday February 16, 2007

Ousted Berkeley Planning Commission chair and environmentalist Helen Burke, defeated in a carefully staged coup Wednesday night, said Thursday that David Stoloff, her replacement, told her after the vote that he knew the only way he could beat her was by lying. 

Stoloff denied the allegation. 

Burke said Stoloff told her he hadn’t consulted with the mayor or his chief assistant, Cisco DeVries, “because he said he knew they would shut him down.” 

The mayor had backed Burke a year earlier when she was elected to the chair, a position traditionally held for two years. 

Burke was ousted by a 5-4 vote that saw Stoloff joined by Larry Gurley, Harry Pollack, Susan Wengraf and James Samuels against Burke, Gene Poschman, Mike Sheen and Roia Ferrazares. 

Stoloff, appointed by Mayor Tom Bates on Dec. 2, 2002, won on the votes of commission members considered more developer-friendly than the pro-Burke contingent. He was elected vice-chair last year during the same meeting when Burke was voted in as chair. 

James Samuels, who moved to the Planning Commission after a short term on the Landmarks Preservation Commission—where he found himself frequently on the losing end of votes—was elected vice chair. 

Wednesday’s vote comes at a time when the commission is confronting a range of critical development issues, including the new Downtown Area Plan, which will be submitted to the commission in November. 

The plan, which will govern the future of the city’s heart during as UC Berkeley adds 800,000 square feet of new off-campus uses west of campus, was mandated in the settlement of a city lawsuit challenging the legality of the plan’s Environmental Impact Report. 

Burke, a Sierra Club activist, was named to the commission by Councilmember Linda Maio on Sept. 10, 2004. 

For the last 10 years, most city commissions have elected chairs for two consecutive one-year terms, and Burke said she had expected to be reelected to her position, based in part on statements she said Stoloff had made. 

“I was totally blind-sided,” she said. 

Burke said Stoloff told her he “was not happy” that she had been elected chair last year. “He said he felt I had basically blindsided him, and that he needed to do what he did to become chair. But if he’s mad at me, it’s misplaced. He should be angry at the mayor for supporting my election as chair [last year],” she said.  

Stoloff said Thursday he didn’t tell Burke that he felt he was wrongly deprived of the position, but acknowledged that when she asked him if he would support a continuation of her current position, “I said I’d think about it, and I believe she took that as an acquiescence. It was a misunderstanding I did not correct.” 

The new chair said he didn’t want to discuss more of the details of the conversations. “I don’t want to carry on a debate in the newspapers,” he said. “I wanted to be chair because I have a vision of what the Planning Commission can do, and I believe I can be the most effective in implementing it.” 

“What concerns me is that I had taken strong environmental positions, and I hope this vote is not an indication of things to come,” Burke said. 

When it came time for nominations, Ferrazares—the commission’s newest member—moved to reelect Burke as chair, Lawrence T. Gurley—the second-newest member—nominating Stoloff. 

Before the vote, Burke told her colleagues that “for the past 10 years, every chair has served a two-year term.” 

Following Stoloff’s 5-4 victory, the newly elected chair nominated Samuels, an architect and the third-newest member, as vice-chair. The votes were identical. 

Attorney Harry Pollack, who has also served as chair, said he voted for Stoloff because he felt the retired UC Berkeley planner would be better able to handle the commission’s work plan for the years ahead and to fulfill the vision expressed by Mayor Tom Bates in his State of the City address presented to the City Council Tuesday. 

Pollack said Burke’s actions on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) didn’t factor into his vote. 

Following the vote, Pollack smiled. 

Burke, who serves as a commission representative on the citizen panel outlining the shape of the downtown plan, has emerged as a leading environmentalist on the panel as well as a critic of some of the proposals of DAPAC Chair Will Travis, a Bates appointee. 

Stoloff said Thursday that Burke will remain on DAPAC as one of the commission’s representatives. 

Cisco DeVries, chief of staff for the mayor, said he and Bates had learned of the move only after the fact. 

“The mayor was taken by surprise by what happened,” said DeVries. “He’s talking to the people who were involved, and he’ll have something to say about it in the near future. 

DeVries said “it’s fair to say” that Bates had supported Burke for election as chair last year. He declined to comment on Burke’s allegations about Stoloff’s allegedly misleading statements in the days before the vote. 

Pollack said Burke’s election a year ago had shattered another commission tradition, in which the vice chair was elected chair. Pollack had been serving as vice chair at the time. 

“The last time she benefited” from breaking tradition, he said. “This time she didn’t.” 

“Well, it looks like the commission has got its marching orders,” said City Councilmember Dona Spring, whose own appointee to the Planning Commission will probably be forced out at the end of June if the council passes, as expected, new commission term limits legislation now being drafted by City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque. 

Gene Poschman represents the panel’s institutional memory, with the longest experience in Berkeley planning policies and politics. He was on the committee that hired Dan Marks, the current city Director of Planning and Development. 

Linda Maio, the councilmember who appointed Burke, was out of town and unavailable for comment Thursday, said administrative aide Brad Smith. 

Susan Wengraf, the aide to Councilmember Betty Olds and also her appointee to the commission, who voted with the majority for chair, is also slated to go if the council passes the limiting measure.