One of the many perturbing effects of the Berkeley City Council’s colossally stupid attack on the Marines is the re-emergence of UC professor and San Francisco resident David Kirp as an apologist for Berkeley City Hall. On Feb. 18 Kirk’s provoking tribute to the city’s officialdom, “Semper Fi, Berkeley,” appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
This is the second time Kirp has issued such a testimonial. The first was in July 2003, when the respected liberal monthly The American Prospect ran his equally provoking commentary “Berserkeley Works.” It was there that Kirp first sought to correct “the city’s widely held image” as a hothouse of political kookiness and exhibitionism.
Kirp didn’t reject the Berserkeley epithet out of hand. On the contrary, he recalled the Naked Guy’s nude-in; the homeless man’s nightly sleepover in a councilmember’s office; and the 2002 ballot initiative that sought to outlaw the local sale of coffee that wasn’t organic, shade-grown or fair-trade certified coffee.
Thankfully—and this was Kirp’s main point—such excesses were more than compensated for by the unheralded wisdom and restraint of Berkeley City Hall, whose occupants’ enlightened efforts had made the place “a model of how government ought to work.” Seeking to set the record straight, Kirp ticked off “the city’s”—meaning its government’s—pathbreaking achievements: curbside recycling, voluntary public school desegregation, divestiture from apartheid-era South Africa, the disability rights movement. He also noted less familiar successes: the city’s tool-lending library, its summer camps, attended by 1,000 children and subsidized for poor families; its award-winning architectural preservation; the unusually high percentage of its population (about 18 percent) that commute to work by public transit; and advances in public health.
Kirp seemed unaware that most of these programs and policies originated outside of City Hall—some of them, like architectural preservation, in strenuous opposition to official policy.
But what he offered as the clincher for his argument was an indisputably official product: Berkeley’s surprisingly well-managed finances. “The city has done all this,” he marveled, “while keeping the books in balance.” Even as Oakland and San Francisco were laying off staff, “smart planning” had enabled Berkeley to “turn a small surplus.” You wouldn’t have guessed it “from the news accounts,” Kirp enthused, but “Moody’s, the bond-rating company, has given Berkeley one of the top ratings in California.”
Kirp couldn’t have known that a few years later, the credibility of bond-rating companies would itself be steeply downgraded. But as a professor at UC’s Goldman School of Public Policy, he should have realized that what Berkeley’s high credit rating reflected was mainly the willingness of the town’s citizenry to pass some of the highest taxes in California, not the professional expertise of the city’s money managers or for that matter the overall caliber of municipal administration.
He also should have known that in balancing its budget, the City of Berkeley performed no extraordinary feat but merely complied with state law that required every city in California to do the same. Contrary to Kirp’s account, the budget adopted by the council in June 2003 cut 23 positions, 16 of which were vacant: In other words, instead of asking, in good government style, which services were most essential to the general welfare, the council prioritized the protection of staff jobs. Though a small surplus did materialize at the last minute, the city manager predicted that in 2004 the city would face an estimated $7.6 million deficit.
All this eluded Professor Kirp, as did the city’s bungling of the biggest item in Berkeley’s finances over which it had some real control: the contracts with staff unions. In 2001 and 2002, the council approved contracts that increased staff compensation (salaries plus benefits) a mind-boggling average 42 percent over six years. So much for smart planning.
And speaking of planning, the good professor also missed the meltdown of the Berkeley planning department. In the first week of June the planning director left for a job in Texas; she was the department’s third head in five years to resign abruptly. She’d secretly sought and accepted her new position; the deputy city manager had to take over her post on an emergency basis.
Under the departed director’s tenure, the department had run roughshod over neighborhoods and bent—indeed broken—Berkeley’s zoning laws, giving the rogue developer Patrick Kennedy just about anything he wanted (a lot). Though land use is a major function of municipal government, these abuses and the degradation of the townscape they sanctioned went unremarked in “Berzerkeley Works.”
Perhaps this silence was not surprising, given Kirp’s characterization of Berkeley laws that allow “anyone” to contest the site of a hot tub “right up to the council” as an example of the city’s “steroidal democracy.” (How would he feel about neighbors’ hot tub parties outside his bedroom window?).
Kirp had it backwards: It wasn’t Berkeley citizens who were out of control; it was Berkeley City Hall. Reading “Berserkeley works” in 2003, I wondered if someone at 2180 Milvia had asked the author to distract the public from the ineptitude and roguery therein with a celebration of official sagacity?
That same question came to mind last Monday morning, as I perused Kirp’s latest paean to the denizens of the Civic Center Building. Granted, “Semper Fi, Berkeley” didn’t start out like a paean. It began by calling the council’s “attack on the Marines as ‘unwelcome intruders’ … just the latest example of Berkeley politicians behaving badly.”
But just when it had whetted the reader’s interest in such bad behavior, the piece did an about-face and spent most of the rest of its 693 words eulogizing the city’s government, in much the same manner as Kirp’s 2003 essay.
Indeed, reading on, I realized that “Semper fi, Berkeley” was a slightly revised version of “Berserkeley works.” The council’s rude treatment of the Marines had taken the place of the nude-in, the homeless trespasser of City Hall and the coffee initiative. Standard & Poor’s, which recently raised the city’s bond rating, now stood in for Moody’s. And the city’s programs for earthquake preparedness and residental solarization, along with its participation in the new East Bay Green Corridor, had been added to the list of exemplary achievements.
At the same time, much of the 2003 essay remained. In some places, the language of “Semper Fi, Berkeley” was virtually identical to that of “Berserkeley Works.” But what the heck—a writer is entitled to mine his own work.
Far more important, even where Kirp’s language was fresh, his overall intent was the same: To give the city’s government its rightful but hitherto untendered recognition. “Not only is Berkeley an unexpected model of fiscal prudence,” Kirp wrote in the Chron. “Equally surprisingly, it’s also a leader when it comes to smart government.”
I wish I could say that these claims have a greater purchase on reality than they did when their author first advanced them four and half years ago. But if anything, they have even less. The affront to the Marines wasn’t the only grossly irresponsible action that the Bates council took on the night of Jan. 29. At the same meeting, it approved on consent, which is to say without the slightest discussion, a four-year contract giving Berkeley police a 14 percent cost of living raise.
Last Oct. 23, with virtually no deliberation in public, Bates and his colleagues approved a new, four-year contract that raised city firefighter salaries at least 13 percent. Labor costs make up 77 percent of the city’s operating budget. These new contracts will cost Berkeley an additional $13 million.
Those millions should be added to the 15-year, $12 million annual subsidy of UC’s use of municipal services that the council secretly imposed on city taxpayers in May 2005 when it settled Berkeley’s first suit of the university behind closed doors. Meanwhile, the council is considering putting a host of new taxes—including public safety taxes—on the November’s ballot.
I don’t have space to document Berkeley officials’ continuing violation of the city’s land use laws, their insidious assault on the town’s still-vital industrial sector, their neglect of the crumbling municipal infrastructure, their subversion of the city’s historic preservation ordinance (the subject of a November referendum), their years-long failure to produce a creditable sunshine ordinance or their inadequate support for Berkeley’s struggling retailers.
But in light of even the partial background sketched above, how could anyone characterize Berkeley governance as good, smart or prudent—that is, anyone who isn’t a City Hall flak?
On Wednesday I called Kirp and asked if someone in City Hall had asked him to write in the City’s behalf.
His reply was a flat No. He then told me that he was offended by the question, which felt to him “like a character assault ... It’s antithetical to who I am,” he said, which is not only a UC professor but also a former newspaperman who was once an editor at the Sacramento Bee. “The business of being an independent thinker is so important to me,” said Kirp. He explained that in writing these commentaries, he saw himself engaging in just such business, by showing people that stories—in this case, Berkeley’s story—are often more complicated than they appear.
I believe him. But I find his commitment to independent thought and complicated stories hard to reconcile with his superficial portrait of Berkeley’s government and its citizenry, as well as with something else he said: “I called a number of people in City Hall, and asked them, ‘Is it true that Berkeley is still a well-managed city?’”
To find out if a city is well-managed, he called the people doing the managing? What did he expect them to say—“We’re doing a lousy job?” I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed for him or simply exasperated at his credulousness.
My last question to Kirp was whether he read the Daily Planet. He said he didn’t. I told him that if he really wanted to grasp the complexity of Berkeley’s public life, he should start doing so.
Let’s hope he takes that advice. Otherwise, I fear we're in for a third edition of “Berserkeley Works.”