Manufacturing Consent in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday February 16, 2011 - 11:43:00 AM

In case you ever wondered why things happen the way they do in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, our putative democracy, consider this:

The local Berkeleyside website recently reported on what was billed as a “novel forum”, a very pricey online poll paid for (with city funds?) by the councilmembers from Berkeley’s three most affluent council districts: District 5’s Laurie Capitelli (Thousand Oaks etc.), District 6’s Susan Wengraf (the high Berkeley Hills) and District 8’s Gordon Wozniak (Claremont-Elmwood). The pollster was Peak Democracy, a self-described “non-partisan company whose mission is to broaden civic engagement and build public trust in government.”

Non-partisan? Well, they might not be big-D Dems or big-R Repugs, but they do have an oar or two in the water. 

More from the PD website

“Peak Democracy was co-founded by Robert Alan Vogel and Michael Alvarez Cohen, both experienced entrepreneurs in the information technology sector. Robert most recently started, ran and successfully sold a pharmaceutical software business. Michael is a Harvard MBA and has held various executive management positions with high tech companies in Silicon Valley. Robert is Peak Democracy’s CEO and Michael is a board member. “ 

Does the name Michael Alvarez Cohen ring any bells? It turns out that Mr. Alvarez Cohen wears two more hats besides his membership on the PD board. 

If you’re a longtime Planet reader, you might remember that a couple of years ago Richard Brenneman reported, in an article entitled Push For West Berkeley Zone Changes Linked To University, Lab Startup Firms , that Alvarez Cohen is “the university official who heads the marketing effort to commercialize UC Berkeley-generated patents with the private sector.” He’s also a member of the City of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustment Board, appointed by—no surprise here—Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. 

Knowing that Mr. A-C is a three-hat guy, you won’t be surprised to learn the results of the poll. The question it asked was “Should the City Council amend West Berkeley zoning to allow conversion of warehouse and/or wholesale spaces to other uses including research and development (R&D)?” 

And the answer? “The final number of votes was 237 and the vast majority voted in favor of the new plans. This was the breakdown of responses: Yes: 182; No: 25; Neutral: 2; Maybe: 28.” 

No word on how many of these “voters” lived in West Berkeley and how many in the affluent hill districts represented by the sponsoring councilmembers, but we can hazard a guess, can’t we? Yes, go ahead and put it in Your Backyard! (as long as it’s Not in Mine….) 

How does Michael Alvarez Cohen fit into plans which are afoot to change West Berkeley’s zoning? Well, in the first place, it’s generally accepted that the proposed zoning changes would make it much easier for companies commercializing UC patents (Alvarez Cohen’s protégés) to build offices there. 

Second, a major feature of the changes is the proposal to relax specific requirements in order to give the Zoning Adjustment Board increased power to vote projects up or down on a case-by-case basis. Will Mr. Alvarez-Cohen recuse himself each time a project with UC connections comes before the board? Probably not. 

In fairness, his many-hatted involvement in the West Berkeley scheme is not the worst part of the Peak Democracy scenario. Even if the company didn’t have a major local political player as a founder and board member, their methodology is anything but democratic. 

From their site: 

“It's hard for most residents to participate in city council and other government meetings. Whether they're intimidated by public speaking, uncomfortable confronting others with opposing views, uneasy about publicly stating their opinion or too busy to attend evening meetings, most of your community's voices are rarely heard. When only a few people participate, it can be hard to know what the rest of the community thinks.” 

Of course, nothing is stopping such shy people from writing signed letters, email or snail, to their representatives, or even calling them on the phone. And also: “To prevent any one person from dominating the forum, Peak Democracy restricts participants to one statement per topic.” 

In other words, no dialogue allowed here, just spout off, shut up and vote right. 

Peak Democracy opinion posters are allowed to be, and most prefer to be, “semi-anonymous”: What does that mean? It means that the company management knows your name, but no one else needs to. For our older readers, this is all too reminiscent of disgraced Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s claim that his reactionary views were backed by a “silent majority”, though it’s commonplace in the brave new world of online bloviation. 

The difference here is that Peak Democracy solicits paid sponsorship by public officials for its Open City Hall™ product, the one purchased and used by Berkeley Councilmembers Wozniak, Capitelli and Wengraf to generate apparent consent for their political positions. In Berkeley, they can even use their tax-funded council accounts to pay for it. 

It’s a pay-to-play scheme which can easily be engineered to produce any results the official needs to justify his or her vote. Capitelli, for example, has emailed his supporters asking them to participate in the poll, although many others in his own district and especially residents of flatlands districts don’t even know about it. Also, participating "voters" need to use computers , and many Berkeleyans don't know how. 

Again from the PD site, “Peak Democracy requires every user to verify their email address via a verification link sent to the user's email address. In addition, Peak Democracy subjects every registration to a battery of automated tests which inspect the user's home address, the IP Address and other available information.” The many Berkeley citizens who are alert to privacy issues are reluctant to give their personal information to a private company like Peak Democracy with no enforceable guarantees that it won’t be misused. 

The Open Town Hall ™ product is no substitute for representative democracy. Anonymous letters are not a substitute for public participation. President Woodrow Wilson espoused “open covenants … openly arrived at… no private …understandings of any kind but … always frankly and in the public view.” That might be a good motto for the Berkeley City Council. 

At the Planet, we have always believed that unsigned opinions were not worth the paper it took to print them Even though we’re now paperless, we still refuse provide space for people too cowardly even to sign their name to a letter to the editor. That’s an old school attitude, perhaps, but we’ll stick to it. City officials, please copy.