Moving On After Berkeley Turns Down Measure C

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday June 15, 2010 - 09:40:00 AM

Now that the dust has settled after the Measure C vote, it’s time to figure out what happened and how to get a better result.Many theories have been forwarded this way, several of which might be labeled “conspiracy”, but the most persuasive is this one, from my friend Antonio Rossmann, environmental attorney, father of two Willard students, enthusiastic athlete and yes, ardent architectural preservationist too: 

“I have just gone to the Alameda Registrar of Voters website and come up with these results: Overall county voter turnout percentage: 23 percent. Democratic: 24. Republican: 32. Nonpartisan: 7.6. Among those (like me) a decline-to-state who voted either D or R (no percentages possible here), the proportion of those who voted either D or R, compared to registered voters in that party, was twice as great for Republicans. [I could not discern a breakdown by cities.] 

The message seems clear: Measure C sponsors unfortunately faced a warped electorate because of the competitive Republican primary and uncompetitive Democratic one. I know they wanted this measure voted now to avoid the water bond and other stuff in November, but wound up with a different disadvantage.” 

This explanation meets the Occam’s Razor test of simplicity.Timing is everything, the overall turnout was vanishingly small, and the wrong people were voting.The precinct-by-precinct results are hard or even impossible to get, but as a general rule there are few actual Republican votes in Berkeley elections, particularly since the Republicans have gotten a bit nutty lately with their choice of candidates. 

But there are other contributory causes.It’s well known by people who work elections on a regular basis that it’s a lot easier to get a no vote than a yes vote, and even more important, when an election turns nasty delicate souls among the electorate just stay home.That’s an equally compelling explanation for the small turnout in this election: Disaffected voters just said a plague on both your houses when faced with charges and counter-charges from backers and opponents. 

Also, public pools are in trouble everywhere in the not-so-great state of California, not just in Berkeley. They’re even in trouble in other states.The URL saveourpools.org is owned by a Philadelphia organization. We Berkeleyans like to think we’re special, but we have the same problems other people have most of the time. 

In the city of Santa Cruz, the only public pool, used by citizens and students alike, has been turned over to a private swim club which offers lessons at a price, and not a small one either.In a beach town, drownproofing is even more important than it is here, but now poor kids won’t be learning to swim at the city pool. 

There’s just not enough tax money to go around.Californians statewide have chosen a reduced standard of living, or rather, many well-off citizens seem to prefer to keep their money to spend on themselves in private settings instead of thinking about the common good. 

In many cities, though not in Berkeley, school districts provide pools which are also open to the public.In many cities, though not in Berkeley, pools are supported by public-private partnerships like the one which has triumphantly restored the Richmond Plunge

The opponents of Measure C who pointed out that the Mello-Roos bond mechanism is expensive over time were not technically wrong.But borrowing money so that you can meet present needs, even if you pay more in interest in the long run, is a strategy familiar to anyone who’s ever had a home mortgage. It’s not de facto bad, particularly when you’re talking about kids who will grow up before you can save up enough money to buy a house or build a pool. And as an economic commentator told the Planet, bond rates are at a 50-year low, so if you’re ever going to borrow, now’s the time to do it. 

Measure C supporters didn’t help themselves, however, by not addressing this argument in a straightforward and intelligent way.Their website says that “The nearly complete results show that Measure C received only 60.4 percent. In any other election, anything over 60 percent would be considered a landslide victory. But Prop. 13 mandates a minimum two-thirds super-majority for any new tax measures by local governments or the state Legislature. That's why local governments always have to mount special campaigns for any capital needs, such as the pools, and why the state budget process is such a perpetual disaster.” 

That’s mixing apples and oranges, since the 2/3 requirement for Measure C is a property of the Mello-Roos mechanism, not created by the super-majority requirement for votes in the legislature.A special assessment, which needs only a majority, might have been a better way to raise the money for pools, and should be evaluated once again. 

The inclusion of the warm pool in this election was a confounding factor.The benefits of warm pools in general are certainly great, but it is the responsibility of the city of Berkeley single-handedly to provide a warm pool for the whole surrounding area? 

A regional approach might work better, bringing in all the cities whose residents also benefit from the warm pool, and even asking medical institutions like Kaiser and Summit Hospitals to join.The regional model that produced the spiffy new Tom Bates Memorial soccer facilities down by the bay should be investigated as a way of paying to rehab the existing warm pool for a larger multi-city user base. Getting additional private contributions might also be possible for this special purpose. This strategy might even work to save Iceland--perhaps the two sports facilities could be pitched as a package. 

And whatever happened to concern about global warming?Is it responsible stewardship for BUSD to tear down an existing building which could be restored at much less environmental cost and with more classrooms? Part of the financing to restore the warm pool is already available through the previous bond approval which was never utilized. Pool advocates blame the school district for their intransigence in this respect, with some justice. 

A couple of commentators have even broached the heretical notion that building a big new American football stadium might not be the highest priority for the Berkeley Unified School District, with soccer (the international form of football, played enthusiastically by both boys and girls) ever increasing in popularity.It’s arguable that kids (and adults) get more healthful exercise from swimming than from playing any kind of football. 

Commentators suggest that the defeat of Measure C might portend trouble for the school bond and tax measures just placed on the November ballot. But there’s not much evidence to support the theory that the majority of Berkeley voters are in general revolt against paying the cost of government, especially those who vote in high turnout elections. 

Even for the disaffected minority, a much better way of sending a message to the school district regarding priorities would be through backing candidates for the School Board who will be on the same ballot.People who think BUSD needs to do better by pool users should quiz candidates about where they stand. They might even float (pun intended) their own pro-pool candidates for the fall school board race. Candidates who back restoring the existing warm pool would garner a meaningful bloc of additional votes from the architectural preservation wing of the environmental community. 

The Berkeley City Council needs to work on it too—and the existing pools should be maintained a bit longer, while a better solution is devised. 

Tony Rossmann summed it up this way: 

“To me the question remains: either with a tweak to overcome some of the opposition, or as is, should not the City Council put the measure back on the November ballot while there is still a chance, and keep Willard open till then? Since Willard is the most adversely affected by the vote, I hope our parent and school leadership can be mobilized toward that effort.” 

Most important, the opposing parties in the recent vote, all of whom claimed to have the best interests of the citizens at heart, should once again come out of their corners and work together on a solution that meets everyone’s needs.It’s still possible.